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Music

Two new Beethoven CDs highlight rewards and risks of interpretation

| Sunday, July 7, 2002

Some recordings attract attention because they explore new or neglected repertoire. But recordings of Ludwig van Beethoven's music must be extraordinary to be worth acquiring.

Beethoven's music is central to concert life, and was the focus here in this season of extra orchestral and chamber music festivals. In addition, the legacy of recordings stretches back to before World War I, when Beethoven's Fifth was the first symphony to be recorded.

Nevertheless, two new sets of compact discs from Decca command respect and affection as significant additions to the highly competitive Beethoven discography. One is the first installment in what will be a new, complete set of the string quartets by the Takacs Quartet, whose appearances on the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society series have been high points of recent seasons. The other is a reissue of all the symphonies plus six concerti and three overtures played by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, including many unbeatable performances.

The Takacs Quartet is a virtuoso ensemble originally made up of four Hungarian musicians but which now is half English: Edward Dusinberre and Karoly Schranz, violins, Roger Tapping, viola and Andras Fejer, cello. The ensemble offers provocative interpretations with its characteristically vibrant inner voices of Beethoven's most romantic quartets in the new two-CD set recorded in July and November of 2001 in England.

Beethoven dedicated his three quartets published as Opus 59 to the Russian ambassador to Vienna, Count Razumovsky. For the great composers, a melodic idea is useful when it can be developed and surpassed, as the First Razumovsky Quartet in F major shows right away when the first violin extends the glorious cello opening. The Takacs' scintillating performance of this quartet is the high point of their new recording. The musicians' highly imaginative phrasing and articulation casts a fresh light that is also entirely in tune with the music's spirit.

The Takacs' Third Razumovsky is nearly as impressive. The music's opening was clearly inspired by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Dissonant" Quartet, with chromatic slow introductions followed by sunnier quick music. The rhythmic brio of the new recording is infectious, and the accents in the very fast fugal finale are stunning.

By contrast, the E minor Quartet is over interpreted. The Takacs Quartet indulges wide tempo swings in the darkly introspective first movement, and although the performance is keenly focused, the result is episodic.

The Takacs set is completed by the "Harp Quartet," a natural nickname because of the extensive pizzicato (plucked) passages. Although there is much to admire in this performance, too, the quartet plays the finale in a peculiar way. The theme is shorn of grace and warmth, as though to apply a false modern sense of irony, and the third variation is similarly edgy.

Decca's digital sound is extremely clear and tonally appealing.

Schmidt-Isserstedt's Vienna Philharmonic set of Beethoven's orchestra music also shows the rewards and risks of decisive interpretation. The German conductor's career was centered in Hamburg, Germany, where he built the North German Radio Orchestra into a significant ensemble in the years after World War II.

The Vienna Philharmonic has recorded the Beethoven symphonies many times, including a nearly complete set under Wilhelm Furtwangler and all nine symphonies under Leonard Bernstein, Karl Bohm and Claudio Abbado. Simon Rattle just completed a new set for EMI this spring.

Yet, if Schmidt-Isserstedt was and is less well-known, his reputation should never be confused with results. His recording of Beethoven's Ninth is a staggering achievement, combining a deep and true interpretation with fabulous orchestral and choral performance and a stellar vocal quartet.

Schmidt-Isserstedt is keenly attuned to the mystery, terror and lyricism of the first movement, but the slow movement makes his recording of the Ninth immortal. It is songful, deeply felt and perfectly poised. And the way the Vienna violins play after the two climaxes is heaven itself.

The vocal quartet features four singers in their early prime: soprano Joan Sutherland, mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, tenor James King and bass Martti Talvela, while the Vienna State Opera Chorus sings with refinement and power.

The recording was made in November 1965 in the Sofiensaal, the wonderful Viennese recording site that burned down last summer. Once tone controls are used to tame the bright mid-range of the CD, the recording emerges as sumptuous.

Several other symphonies are second to none. The Eroica is tautly powerful and wonderfully clarified. The lyrical Fourth Symphony is incomparably bucolic in the first movement, and the slow movement is as lovingly sung as the Ninth's. But it is Schmidt-Isserstedt's finale that stamps this performance as winningly different because he does not rush the music, allowing different charms and humor to emerge than one usually hears.

Schmidt-Isserstedt also recorded the finest interpretation of Beethoven's "The Consecration of the House" Overture, obviously inspired by the composer's love of George Frederick Handel's music. The imposing rhetoric and wit of the opening are followed by perfectly paced, quickly contrapuntal music, presented with agility and weight.

Most of the other symphonies are very good to excellent, but the first two are much too slow.

Schmidt-Isserstedt and the Vienna Philharmonic provide exemplary support for pianist Wilhelm Backhaus in the five piano concerti. The orchestral parts are played with insight and discipline that yields nothing to George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, who recorded these concerti with Leon Fleisher on Sony and Emil Gilels on EMI.

Unfortunately, the playing of Backhaus is not competitive. Although he was one of the most prominent German pianists of the 20th century, he plays the Beethoven concerti superficially in these recordings and uses an awful cadenza for the first movement of the Third Concerto.

Beethoven's Violin Concerto is beautifully played by Henryk Szeryng. The Polish violinist plays with many winning personal inflections and is strongly and sensitively supported by Schmidt-Isserstedt and the London Symphony in a November 1965 recording.

Both new Decca sets of Beethoven's music are important additions to the catalog and will reward repeated listening.

The recordings of Beethoven's music


  • Beethoven: Razumovsky & Harp Quartets; Takacs String Quartet; Decca 470 087.

  • Beethoven: Nine Symphonies, five Piano Concerti, Violin Concerto; Wilhelm Backhaus, piano; Henryk Szeryng, violin; Vienna Philharmonic; London Symphony; Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, conductor; Decca 467 892 (eight CDs).

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