I am reasonably certain that the first records I ever owned were the 1960s Karajan Beethoven cycle. And, over the years, I’ve accumulated a cycle or two most years, so by now, I have a fair number of them. But I’ve just heard one of the most exciting renditions in the last few years: a live cycle from August (and September 1) 2006 conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras at the Edinburgh Festival.
The Edinburgh Festival in 2006 did something imaginative – they scheduled a series of individual concerts – going through the entire Bruckner symphony cycle and the entire Beethoven symphony cycle. Experienced conductor (and something of a Beethoven expert Mackerras) conducted all of the Beethoven symphonies – the first with the group he is arguably closest with – the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The Ninth symphony was performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra (which has a “bigger sound”). The programming was remarkable – each symphony formed the whole of an entire concert and was priced at only £10. BBC Scotland did an excellent job of recording these performances for broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Hyperion, a British music label which is known for the high quality of their releases and which seems to focus mainly on less-well known pieces was apparently so taken with the performance that they licensed it for CD release. As a work of recording engineering, I found no shortcomings in these CDs.
Original reviews of these performances complained about a crying baby during the Eroica or poor vocal sonics during the “Ode to Joy”, but I found no such problems in the recordings proper. It appears that these problems were fixed by sound engineering rather than rerecording – the work as a whole seems to have the “live excitement” that one expects in a performance. The recording engineering is as good as I’ve seen for a live recording.
These performance generally follows Beethoven’s original tempos, which is to say, fast, and uses Del Mar’s critical edition of the scores which fixes many errors in older editions. (Del Mar, by the way, wrote some excellent books – written in a very practical style – on conducting Beethoven and on how orchestras work.) I learned a great deal from listening to these pieces, and especially noted how energetic and bright Mackerras’s performances were.
If you are a Beethoven fan, you can certainly benefit from this recording – at the very least you’ll enjoy the “live excitement” of this recording.
Currently Amazon US sells this recording at an overpriced $71.98, although individual Amazon merchants will sell the work for as $37.27. Amazon UK sells the work for even less (£25.39), and US purchasers benefit from the reduction of the VAT tax (which almost makes up for the cost of shipping).
(If this is too much for you, and you want a budget Beethoven, I would recommend the Zinman cycle on Arte Nova available for $20 or less from Amazon retailers – it is not as good as the Mackerras, but it shares some of its virtues, namely the Del Mar score).