RCO’s Live Beethoven Cycle

Beethoven Live (Symphonies Nos. 1-9)

  • David Zinman (1); Leonard Bernstein (2); Nikolaus Harnoncourt (3); Herbert Blomstedt (4); Mariss Jansons (5); Roger Norrington (6); Carlos Kleiber (7); Philippe Herreweghe (8); Antal Dorati (9); Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
  • Recorded 1978-2010
  • RCO Live 19005 (5CD)

A flood of new and reissued Beethoven recordings have emerged in the past two Beethoven anniversary years, and riding on this celebratory bandwagon, the illustrious Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has released this cycle of Beethoven symphonies, derived from radio recordings of live performances, on its house label. This was a release that I looked forward to very much, for several reasons. Firstly, the orchestra, while undoubtedly one of the world’s finest, strangely still lacks a truly great Beethoven cycle on CD — Jochum’s and Haitink’s were quite fine but eclipsed by their remakes (both with the LSO), while Sawallisch’s was just dull. Secondly, the conductors featured here differ widely between each other in style and temperament; moreover, they have all recorded these pieces elsewhere, in most cases as part of complete cycles, which would make for interesting comparison. And last but certainly not least, the set includes Kleiber’s Seventh, a performance which is not only part of his sole appearance with the orchestra, but also reputedly the greatest of his many recorded Sevenths. (A note of caution: for licensing reasons, the Kleiber Seventh is only available in the CD version of the box set. In digital versions, this has been replaced by a mono recording from 1962 conducted by Rafael Kubelik, which is nothing special.)

The performances of the first two symphonies bode well for the cycle. Zinman delivers a refreshing First: lithe, energetic, transparent, and filled with a sense of discovery that suits Beethoven’s earlier, classically-oriented style perfectly. Here and in the other performances in this box, you realise the key asset of the Concertgebouw: that gem of a woodwind section, fruity-sounding and forwardly balanced, bringing to prominence details rarely heard in other performances, and imbuing the music with vitality and character. This, coupled with the slightly more relaxed pacing and organic phrasing, makes this reading superior to that in Zinman’s famous studio cycle with the Tonhalle Zurich. Likewise, Bernstein’s Second is also terrific. It shares that same zealous fire that characterised his visionary performance of the Missa Solemnis recorded just a week before, while its lightness and naturalness belie Bernstein’s reputation for being a romantic, interventionist interpreter. Again, this performance is preferable to his Vienna and New York Seconds.

Harnoncourt’s Third, on the other hand, is not so successful. In an effort to adhere to (or should we say catch up with?) Beethoven’s tempo markings, Harnoncourt jettisons a lot of the music’s grandeur and detail and resorts to jarring attacks and harsh sonorities that soon grow wearisome. Thus, the first movement is relentless yet glib; the great Funeral March conveys neither the solemnity nor the terror that the music requires. The last two movements suit this lickety-split approach best, but to little avail in the context of the whole performance. His recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe sounds much more convincing, due to Harnoncourt’s less frantic pacing as well as the orchestra’s clearer textures.

The Fourth with Blomstedt sounds strangely uninspired; Blomstedt is typically musical and sensitive, but this reading lacks the solidity of his Dresden recording, nor does it have the Haydnesque vivacity characterising the performance in his Leipzig cycle. The distant recording further contributes to this soft-edged impression. Jansons’ Fifth is a good, standard reading, with marginally more fire than in his Bavarian Radio cycle, though it really is nothing to write home about. (This performance is also issued in the Jansons Radio Recordings box on the same label.)

I’m not a big fan of Norrington‘s idiosyncratic ways in general, but even I have to admit that his Beethoven shows him at his best. Here, he leads a wonderfully musical, flowing Pastoral. The Scene by the Brook is charmingly bucolic, the Peasant’s Dance is earthy and rustic, and the Storm is tremendously vivid thanks to some pulverising timpani playing. Again, it’s the stellar woodwind playing that makes this marginally superior to his otherwise admirable recording with the Stuttgart Radio, but what also impresses is the fact that the Concertgebouw’s strings maintain their plushness even with the vibrato-less style that Norrington espouses.

Then we come to the legendary Kleiber Seventh. Kleiber was nothing if not consistent, and if you are familiar with the studio recording with the Vienna Philharmonic you will know what to expect here: an interpretation that is a rare combination of discipline, flexibility and fire. Add the extra spontaneity and frisson of a live performance, and the Concertgebouw’s inimitable playing, and you have a Seventh for the ages. It’s an absolutely magnetic performance; the first movement’s allegro goes as if self-propelled, while the coda to the finale blazes in a torrent of momentum. It’s very hard to choose between this performance and the one with the Bavarian State Orchestra on Orfeo; perhaps the latter’s more courageous horns and emphatic strings marginally tip the scales in its favour. So, while this may not be Kleiber’s absolute best Seventh, it’s undoubtedly a great reading that must be heard by anyone who loves this symphony.

Herreweghe’s Eighth slightly disappoints. Again, the woodwinds are an enormous pleasure to listen to, particularly in the clucking second movement, but overall the performance is slightly soft-edged and hangs fire in an underpaced fourth movement; it’s far less impressive than his excellent Royal Flemish Philharmonic recording on Pentatone. Unfortunately, things get much worse in this dreary Ninth conducted by Antal Dorati. Similar to that in his Royal Philharmonic cycle, his is an efficient and faceless reading, with no special interpretative touches worthy of note, and even the orchestra sounds less involved than they did in the other recordings. To add insult to injury, the singing is unimpressive: Leonard Mroz sounds hoarse and uneasy in his O Freunde solo, the quartet just before the coda sounds more ungainly than it already is, and the choir sounds muddy and is placed well back in the soundstage, depriving their contribution of power and presence. Surely there must have been better Concertgebouw Ninths from which to choose.

If you would ignore this massive fly in the ointment, this is on balance the Concertgebouw’s finest Beethoven cycle to date. Although none of these performances save the Kleiber Seventh would make the top of my list of the individual symphonies, those of the 1st, 2nd, and 6th are truly excellent, and all of them (but the 9th) are beautifully captured by the Dutch radio engineers in lifelike sound that gives a very good sense of the vastness of the Concertgebouw acoustic. It was wise for the orchestra to select a different conductor for each symphony; after all, despite running the gamut from HIP to traditional, what remains constant throughout all these performances is the sheer excellence of the orchestra‘s playing, and the Concertgebouw was right to showcase that quality on their house label. When all is said and done, however, this set remains more of a testament to a great orchestra than a great Beethoven cycle, and if the latter is what you’re looking for, sets by Wand and Blomstedt among others remain unchallenged.


There are some gems here: an amazing No. 7, excellent performances of Nos. 1, 2 & 6, and only the 9th is really disappointing. Ultimately, though, this set is a fine exhibit of the orchestra’s stellar playing, rather than a great Beethoven cycle.

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