WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 7; Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9; Piano Concerto No. 1′ Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano C
PERFORMER: Wilhelm Backhaus (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), vocal soloists; Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna PO, LSO/Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt
CATALOGUE NO: 467 892-2 ADD Reissue (1958-69)
Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt’s Vienna Philharmonic Beethoven cycle (recorded 1965-9) gave countless listeners formative gateways to the symphonies. If your personal hindsight extends more readily to other classic recommendations, like Karajan’s 1961-2 cycle, Klemperer’s Philharmonia series, or the underrated André Cluytens Berlin set, you’ll still find Schmidt-Isserstedt’s Beethoven inspirational.
His were generous ‘old-world’ realisations, as free of needless affectation and fussiness as they were unrelentingly faithful to the texts. Highlights include an Eroica of noble intent, most eloquently played, and a lustily bucolic Seventh that rivals Carlos Kleiber’s DG version. Like the octogenarian Günter Wand in his NDR/RCA traversal, Schmidt-Isserstedt understood Classical proportion and convention. His readings of the early symphonies (and Nos 4 and 8, too) had prophetic clarity, without a gut string or period wind instrument within earshot. Decca’s box also includes lofty purist interpretations of the piano concertos from Backhaus, though Szeryng’s 1965 LSO recording of the Violin Concerto hasn’t the rapture of his Concertgebouw remake with Haitink.
Hermann Scherchen’s book The Nature of Music argued that Beethoven’s symphonies ‘matured to become the universal language of humanity, the creative expression of the West for those of us who are alive today’. Scherchen’s 1958 Westminster Legacy performances of Symphonies Nos 3 and 6 with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (aka Vienna PO) don’t necessarily rehearse such idealised expressions convincingly. They’re highly individual statements (though musical sense sometimes gives way to overblown rhetoric, as in the Eroica’s finale) notwithstanding some quirky instrumental balances and rather boxy recording.
Roger Norrington’s Beethoven cycle is dominated by extremes. The finales of Symphonies Nos 2, 7 and 8 seem ridiculously fast, especially considering Mahler’s dictum that the quickest feasible tempo should enable all the notes to register clearly. Norrington aimed to rekindle ‘the exhilaration and sheer disturbance that Beethoven’s music certainly generated in his day’, something his LCP set often does quite effectively. But you’d do better with Frans Brüggen’s Philips performances with the Orchestra of the 18th Century or David Zinman’s Zürich Tonhalle cycle (which, like Gardiner’s, uses Jonathan Del Mar’s critical editions), an outstanding bargain on Arte Nova. Schmidt-Isserstedt’s Decca set shouldn’t be missed on any account, however.