Beethoven: A guide to his symphonies
No composer changed the symphony more radically than Beethoven... Here is a guide to all nine of his symphonies and their best recordings
No composer changed the symphony more radically than Beethoven. Whilst his First (1801) pays its respects to the 18th-century classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, each of the eight successive symphonies follows a unique trajectory heralding a new era: composers were no longer subservient to their court patrons and could assert their right to individual expression.
So it’s little wonder that Beethoven’s colossal symphonic legacy both inspired and intimidated later 19th-century composers. From the moment these works entered the repertory, conductors viewed the performance of a Beethoven cycle as a litmus test of their achievements.
Battle lines as to the ‘ideal’ interpretation of the symphonies were established at an early stage between Mendelssohn, whose performances were mercurial and precise, and Wagner’s more fluid and nuanced approaches. This dichotomy is mirrored in current approaches with opposed views of the music emanating from Riccardo Chailly on one hand and Christian Thielemann on the other.
BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY NO. 1
Following in the footsteps of Toscanini, Riccardo Chailly delivers a characteristically high-voltage account of Beethoven's First Symphony, perfectly capturing its moments of brusque humour with superbly incisive sforzando accents from his Leipzig players, yet allowing sufficient space for the graceful aspects of the second movement to come to the fore.
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
Decca 478 3493
BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY NO. 2
Skrowaczewski and his Saarbrucken players bring a rare fire and fury to the first movement of Beethoven's Second Symphony. And few can match their bonhomie in the following two movements – as the music bounces from orchestral section to section, masterfully paced by the conductor, one gets the impression of players thoroughly enjoying each others’, and Beethoven’s, company.
Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY NO. 3
When Rudolf Kempe made his Beethoven symphony cycle with the unfashionable Munich Philharmonic in the early 1970s, it was overshadowed by other, more glamorous interpretations, Herbert von Karajan’s in particular. But Kempe’s is a glorious Eroica, powerful and majestic, yet buoyed with lyricism and elegance. It remains a definitive point of reference.
Münchner Philharmoniker/Rudolf Kempe
EMI 636 5552
BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY NO. 4
An exhilaratingly alert performance responding to every nuance of the music, and with a spellbinding account of the long pianissimo passage heralding the first movement’s recapitulation. Violinist and conductor Joshua Bell and his co-players also convey all the warmth of the slow movement and the wit of the finale.
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Joshua Bell
Sony Classical 88765448812
Voted in at No. 3 in BBC Music Magazine’s list of The 50 Greatest Recordings of All Time, this Carlos Kleiber performance has a compelling intensity and electric energy that is utterly suited to the emotional world of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Kleiber didn’t often go into the recording studio, but when he did the results were entirely unforgettable, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which we named one of the world's best orchestras, on blistering form here.
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlos Kleiber
Deutsche Grammophon 447 4002
BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY NO. 6
Still as fresh as ever – a combination of original instruments and conductor Roger Norrington’s energy – this 1980s recording of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony gets to the heart of Beethoven’s titanic creativity. Every note, every phrase penetratingly re-thought, it’s like hearing the music for the first time: the bird-calls sound startling, the ‘beginner’ bassoon in the scherzo wonderfully wittily, the storm elemental.
London Classical Players/Roger Norrington
Virgin 083 4232 (part of 7-CD set)
BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY NO. 7
Riccardo Chailly achieves the near-impossible with this recording of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, combining the classicising insights of period-style performers with the tonal richness and expressive gravity of old-school master interpreters such as Otto Klemperer or Carlos Kleiber. The rhythms are crisp and vital, the colours gorgeous, the expression intense and broad-ranging, and all is captured in superb recorded sound.
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly
Decca 478 3496
BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY NO. 8
Distinguished recordings of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony are not rare, but to seize it in all its aspects turns out to be reserved for peculiar temperaments. An Eloquence recording from 1970 under Claudio Abbado, paired with a noble account of Bruckner’s First Symphony, is a highly recommended modern-ish recording; but if you can tolerate decent mono sound, then Sir Thomas Beecham (Sony Classical) and Hans Knappertsbusch (Orfeo) are truly Jove-like.
Vienna Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado
Australian Eloquence ELQ4805952
BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY NO. 9
Benefiting (as many recent recordings do) from Jonathan Del Mar’s edition of the score, one of the finest modern versions of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony finds conductor Osmo Vänskä and his Minnesota Orchestra on their tautest
form in a 2006 account, notable for its keen focus on detail, its intelligent and sensitive handling of tempo relationships, and its overall organic integrity.
Juntunen, Karnéus, Norman, Davies; Minnesota Chorale & Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
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Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.