Beethoven: A guide to his symphonies

No composer changed the symphony more radically than Beethoven...


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.

Essential recordings…


Following in the footsteps of Toscanini, Riccardo Chailly delivers a characteristically high-voltage account of the 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


Skrowaczewski and his Saarbrucken players bring a rare fire and fury to the first movement. 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


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


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 the 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 on blistering form here.

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlos Kleiber
Deutsche Grammophon 447 4002


Still as fresh as ever – a combination of original instruments and conductor Roger Norrington’s energy – this 1980s recording of the Sixth 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)


Riccardo Chailly achieves the near-impossible, 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


Distinguished recordings of the Eighth 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


Benefiting (as many recent recordings do) from Jonathan Del Mar’s edition of the score, one of the finest modern versions of the 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
BIS BIS-1616

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