Those Mighty Beethoven Symphonies

They are the backbone of the orchestral repertory, the signature works which changed the course of music history. Every composer of the nineteenth century labored under their shadow; every conductor is obliged to climb their collective Parnassus and be judged accordingly.

The nine Beethoven symphonies encompass the whole enchilada of musical expression, from the glittering confidence of the Enlightenment to the stormy self-promotion of the Romantic. No repertory is more standard, but no works of music have survived as many performances — good, bad, or indifferent, nor have any other works of music engendered such endless challenges and fascination.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Beethoven symphony discography is almost unthinkably vast.

The Fifth, in C Minor, was the first complete Beethoven symphony on disc, with Arthur Nikisch leading a stripped-down Berlin Philharmonic in a landmark 1913 traversal, easily available on the Internet. (One hears about an earlier version from 1910 with Friedrich Kark, but hard evidence is scarce-to-nonexistent.) Dig this clever YouTube video which accompanies the first movement with various images:

Complete sets of the Beethoven symphonies have been with us for quite some time. Here's a handy guide to some collections which might well be worth your investigation, in approximately chronological order. I make absolutely no bones about this being a complete listing — I'd need a much, much longer article to do that.

Otto Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra, on EMI

Long one of the great "signature" Beethoven sets, the Klemperer is a slow-moving, darkly majestic traversal. Certainly these are not renditions for historical-performance purists, who may well find LvanB à la Klemp unpalatable. For the rest of us, however, they're pure comfort food.

Find it on ArkivMusic in CD format, iTunes Store as an AAC/128 download

Bruno Walter/Columbia Symphony, on Sony Classical

A lot of us probably grew up on this set, given that it was widely available on a budget label after its initial broad distribution by Columbia Masterworks. Walter made other Beethoven recordings, but this stereo rendition from the last years of his career spins rare magic, the clear and compassionate thoughts of an elder, master musician.

Find it on Amazon as an MP3/256 download: #s 1 & 2, #s 3 & 8, #s 4 & 6, #5, #9, or Amazon as a CD set.

George Szell/Cleveland Orchestra, on Sony Classical

For many folks — including a lot of orchestra professionals — this remains the Beethoven set. Technical polish, faultless pacing, peerless first-chair soloists, and superb recording technique are among its great attractions. Once in a while the Szell performances are described as 'cold' — but judge for yourself. Szell probably takes more micro-rubati than any other conductor on this list, and often these recordings sound surprisingly Romantic, heard now from our half-century-distant vantage point.

Find the original jacket collection in CD format at ArkivMusic, or on Amazon as individual albums in MP3/256 download format.

Leonard Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic, on DG

Although Bernstein recorded the Beethoven symphonies earlier with the New York Philharmonic, on this set an older and (presumably) wiser conductor was working with an older and (unquestionably) wiser orchestra. Lenny and the Vienna players forged a rare synergy in their recordings together, nowhere more so than in these jewels.

Find it on Deutsche Grammophon as an MP3/320 download, or on ArkivMusic in CD format.

Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic, on DG (1963)

This set lured any number of people to make the transition from monophonic to stereo; it remains a high-water mark of the recording art and a Beethoven cycle that belongs on everybody's short list. Big-band Beethoven (with the emphasis on BIG), all drawn together with blazing energy, buff vitality, and ravishing playing from an utterly peerless orchestra. Karajan put out four complete Beethoven sets on records (and another on video) but this one remains the champ.

Find it on Deutsche Grammophon as an MP3/320 download or on ArkivMusic in CD format.

John Eliot Gardiner/Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, on DG

For those who opt for a more historically-informed approach, these splendid performances have a great deal to offer. Tempi are fast — sometimes shockingly so. The attack is incisive, the expression clear and uncomplicated. But within that oh-so-direct approach can be found a wealth of subtlety should one be willing to listen. Fascinating, ear-refreshing, and bracing; I bet Beethoven would have loved them.

Find it on ArkivMusic in CD format or on Deutsche Grammophon as an MP3/320 download.

Herbert Blomstedt/Staatskapelle Dresden, on Briliant Classics

The San Francisco Symphony's own conductor laureate in recordings from his pre-S.F. days at the helm of the exquisite "old gold" Dresden State Orchestra. Blomstedt matches the Dresdeners tit for tat in interpretative aristocracy, resulting in an utterly high-class operation which is nonetheless available at a ridiculously low bargain price from Brilliant Classics.

Find it on Amazon in CD format.

David Zinman/Tonhalle Zurich, on Arte Nova

On a budget label, priced at a mere pittance, these gloriously musical, passionate, original, and creative performances rank right up there with the best of all time. The acoustics are warm and the orchestral playing tip-top. Since they almost give this set away, there's no excuse not to have it.

Find it on Amazon in CD format, or as an AAC/128 download on iTunes Store.

Osmo Vänskä/Minnesota Orchestra, on BIS

Just recently completed, this is to my mind easily the most distinguished Beethoven set since the Szell/Cleveland. Orchestral playing of this technical caliber is not heard every day, nor such clear-minded and intelligent direction, nor such resplendent recorded audio. Although you can't get it in a box set (yet), these five volumes are altogether and absolutely worthy. Anyone who thinks that there's no room in a crowded discography for yet another Beethoven cycle hasn't heard these. Yes, they're on premium-price, single CDs, but worth every penny and then some.

Find them individual albums as AAC/256 downloads on iTunes Store (#s 2 & 7, #s 4 & 5, #9 #s 3 & 8, #s 1 & 6), or individual CDs on Arkiv Music.