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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Superconductor 2011 Gift Guide Part III: Beethoven for the Holidays

Despite the image, there are no dogs in this page of all-Beethoven recommendations.
Let's call this an unsolicited ad for this direct-to-video sequel starring Curtis "Booger" Armstrong.
Image © 2011 Universal Studios.
Beethoven: Complete Symphonies (Decca, 5 CDs)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig cond. Riccardo Chailly

It's an amazing thing--no matter how many recordings of the Beethoven symphonies you hear, there is always a conductor who manages to bring out something new and unheard in the works. Here, it's Riccardo Chailly, whose five-disc account of the symphonies (with some overtures) is a welcome addition to an already vast catalogue.

These are all live recordings: brisk, invigorating accounts of these familiar symphonies. The Fifth (taken at a very fast tempo) is a highlight. The Sixth is played with great purpose and clarity. In the later symphonies (7, 8) Mr. Chailly draws out the textures of Beethoven's string writing, showing the composer pushing the musical envelope. The Ninth wails and stomps through the first two movements. The third is played very slowly--Chailly's experience with Bruckner pays off here. There is an inspired set of soloists in the final choral movement. Recommended.

Fidelio (Decca, 2 CDs)
Lucerne Festival Orchestra cond. Claudio Abbado
Leonore/Fidelio: Nina Stemme
Florestan:  Jonas Kaufmann

Now this was a good idea. Jonas Kaufmann's first major studio opera recording has him taking on the challenging role of Florestan, wrongfully imprisoned by a vengeful government official. To save him, his wife Leonore (Nina Stemme) cross-dresses and becomes "Fidelio", a suspiciously helpful turnkey in the prison. This is the first new recording of Fidelio in a while, which is mostly due to a lack of Leonores. 

Happily, Nina Stemme is admirably qualified for the part, a full-on Wagner soprano who can summon tenderness in the big Act I quartet. The strong cast features Falk Struckmann as the baddie, and bass Christoph Fistesscher as Rocco. In a welcome return to opera recordings, the great Claudio Abbado shows his way with Beethoven, leading this Swiss orchestra.

Beethoven (Deutsche Grammophon, 13 CDs)
Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan
It's coming out next month: the reissue of Herbert von Karajan's umpteenth (and final) cycle of Beethoven symphonies made with the Berlin Philharmonic. Experience the pristine DG Karajan Gold sound without having to shell out too many gold pieces.

Over the course of a five-decade recording career, Karajan repeatedly recorded the Beethoven symphonies, seeking greater refinement of sound from his Berlin Philharmonic forces. The "standard" is his 1963 cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic. But even if it's in the interests of completism, there's something to be said for these digital readings, made in the early 1980s when the conductor's power was at its height.

But wait, shoppers, there's more! This small but mighty box includes the Anne Sophie Mutter recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, a rare orchestral arrangement of the Grosse Fugue, and a cycle of the piano concertos. Christoph Eschenbach plays the first, and Alexis Weissenberg (appearing under a special licensing deal with EMI Classics) plays Nos. 2-5.

Beethoven: Symphonies 1, 2, 3 (3 DVDs or 1 Blu-Ray)
Symphonies 4, 5, 6 (3 DVDs or 1 Blu-Ray)
Symphonies 7, 8, 9 (3 DVDs or 1 Blu-Ray)
Hi-def high-quality Beethoven from Christian Thielemann, the German conductor whose whole career has been a determined throwback to the great kapellmeisters of the past: Hans Richter and Arthur Nikisch. These are visual records of the Vienna Philharmonic playing these great works in the legendary Musikverein. If you want the audio record, the CD box set (released by Sony) comes out on Dec. 27.

From my review:
"Mr. Thielemann leads a straightforward, über-Romantic interpretation, opting for a limpid clarity of texture that allows the listener to hear these sturdy works afresh. He is aided by the sterling acoustics of the hall, the quiet-as-mice audience, and of course the unique sound of the Vienna Philharmonic, whose well-documented use of "Viennese" horns, period oboes and goat-skin drums make them, in effect, an historic ensemble that chooses tradition over technology."

The concert films and recordings are top-notch, even though the camera has a music video tendency to cut too quickly. And if you have a post-Christmas gift certificate, these concerts will be released on CD on Dec. 27.

Beethoven: The Complete Symphony Collection 
(MP3 Download Only, Everest Classics)
London Symphony Orchestra cond. Joseph Krips
This 53-year old set is from the stereo boom, when many record labels were putting together orchestras and conductors in an effort to get into the market. Joseph Krips is chiefly remembered for his opera recordings, most notably a Vienne Don Giovanni that remains an industry standard. The LSO sounds great, captured in their prime. And hey, it's SIX BUCKS for a high-quality MP3 download from Amazon. At that price, it's bound to make somebody happy if they find it in their mailbox this holiday season.

Check out the rest of the 2011 Superconductor Gift Guide:
Part IV: Opera Recordings
Part V: Piano Mania
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.