The complete Beethoven

David Zinman's recordings of the composers' nine symphonies are now available in a boxed set, but the collection might not be the only one your record library needs.

May 09, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

With the releases of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 and No. 9 on single discs and all nine symphonies in a boxed set, the Beethoven project of David Zinman and Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra is now completed.

This is, as reviews of previous single issues in The Sun have noted, the world-premiere recording of these works in the New Baerenreiter Edition, the latest scholarly edition of the composer's original texts. With some exceptions -- such as additional woodwind trills at the beginning of No. 2 and an extended, more elaborately embellished passage for solo oboe in No. 5 -- most of the research that has gone into this edition will not be audible to the average listener.

What those listeners will hear, however, are wonderfully swift readings -- Zinman generally honors the composer's metronome markings -- invariably marked by intelligence, elegance and lightness of touch. A few other complete recordings of the nine symphonies -- Roger Norrington's authentic-instruments versions on EMI, for example -- offer similar virtues. But none can compete with the price of Zinman's set: At $5 for a single disc and $25 for the entire collection, this is an unbeatable bargain.

This is not to say that it is the only set of Beethoven symphonies one needs -- though it will suffice -- in a record library. At the very least, most listeners should have a set (or a collection of individual performances) that present musical views now regarded, in some quarters, as old-fashioned. But there will never be anything out-of-date about the interpretive approaches of Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Fritz Reiner, Herbert von Karajan and other great conductors who have recorded all or most of these symphonies.

Indeed, one of the greatest of all recordings of the Beethoven symphonies -- Arturo Toscanini's with the NBC Symphony -- has just been reissued in three inexpensively priced two-CD sets (including the conductor's superb performance of the "Missa Solemnis") on BMG Classics.

These famous performances have never been out of print since their first release in the early 1950s. Much of what is admirable about Zinman's performances -- the swift tautness, the textural luminousness and the observance of the composer's metronome markings -- can be found in Toscanini's performances, along with more weight to the string tone, better singers (in the Ninth Symphony) and the unmatched interpretive incandescence of Toscanini himself.

Most listeners will find themselves more in agreement with Toscanini than Zinman in one of the former's few departures from Beethoven's metronome markings -- the slow movement ("Adagio molto et cantabile; Andante moderato") of the Ninth Symphony. At Zinman's rather inflexibly fast tempo, the movement certainly moves, but it doesn't sing -- as the composer's "cantabile" demands -- as it does at Toscanini's only slightly slower, but more flexible, tempos.

The biggest drawback of Toscanini's more-than-40-year-old performances has always been their antiquated sound -- poor even by the standards of the time. But in the 10 years since Toscanini's Beethovens were last issued (in BMG's "Toscanini Edition"), major innovations have occurred in sound restoration. These have made it possible for BMG to return to the original sources and make new remasterings that are more musical and sound better than any previously issued.

You cannot go wrong with Zinman's superb new readings. But Toscanini's incomparable versions -- particularly in their latest incarnations -- are essential to any collection.

The Beethoven recordings by Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra are available on the Arte Nova label: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (Arte Nova 74321 63645) and No. 9 (Arte Nova 74321 65411), or all nine symphonies in a boxed set (Arte Nova 74321 65410).

Pub Date: 05/09/99

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