In celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, Pacific Symphony’s President John Forsyte lists some of the composer’s greatest hits in landmark recordings, all easily available on YouTube.
Symphony No. 5
Berlin Philharmonic | Wilhelm Furtwangler, conductor
Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique | John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
For fun, listen to very contrasting recordings: the first is a 1954 recording of the legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic. Furtwangler’s interpretations of Austro-Germanic masterworks were completely distinctive. Undoubtedly, this is a wonderful, urgent and dramatic reading, but our views of Beethoven interpretation have evolved, particularly about his tempo markings, which would suggest much faster readings.
And from 2016, a contemporary view of Beethoven’s tempos and sound world utilizing instruments more clearly matching the sonorities of the early 19th century, as conducted by John Elliott Gardiner.
Symphony No. 7
The Concertgebouw Orchestra | Carlos Kleiber, conductor
With this imaginative and expressive conductor, and a truly magnificent Dutch ensemble, it’s hard to imagine a more riveting performance.
Symphony No. 9
The Berlin Celebration Concert 1989 | Leonard Bernstein, conductor
This was perhaps the most important concert that Bernstein conducted, celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall and performed on Christmas Day in 1989. Substituting the word “freiheit” (freedom) for “freude” (joy), this concert was known as the “Ode to Freedom” and captured the ecstatic reunification of the country and a time filled with optimism. The orchestra was comprised of musicians from East and West Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and the US.
Piano Concerto No. 4
Pianist Emil Gilels | Philharmonia Orchestra | Leopold Ludwig, conductor
This is a revered performance and, for me. It has the greatest range of expression and perfect pacing. The great Soviet pianist Gilels, recorded this work numerous times, but never better than this version in my opinion. While there is no video of the performance and the audio is relatively primitive by today’s standards, it is worth the journey! Listen to the contrast between orchestra and piano in the second movement, which I doubt has been rendered more poignantly.
Movement I: Violinist Henryk Szeryng | Jorge Mester, conductor
Movement II: Violinist Isaac Stern | Leonard Bernstein, conductor
Movement III: Violinist Yehudi Menuhin | Wilhelm Furtwangler
As a violinist, I am going to tilt my selections to this masterwork, simply to explore the range of possibilities. There are so many great performances of the violin concerto from different generations: Heifetz, Oistrakh, Grumiaux, Ferras and Schneiderhan. Later Perlman, Chung, Mutter and today a whole group of wonderful violinists are reimagining their interpretations now. I have a personal attachment, however, to a few older performances.
First, I recommend this performance of a violinist who had a connection to my family. He was a neighbor of my Dad’s family in Warsaw before the war, and he performed in Chicago when I was a child, and I will never forget his performance of the Beethoven. It is filled with directness, nobility and beautiful tone. In the outdoor venue where I heard Henryk Szeryng, his sound really was luminous.
I also love another historic recording of Isaac Stern, with Bernstein conducting. The second movement is so poetic.
And another profound interpretation is that of Yehudi Menuhin, again with Furtwangler conducting:
Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano, “Triple”
David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatislov Richter
Moscow Philharmnic Orchestra | Kirill Kondrashin, conductor
Simply put, these are my three musical heroes. David Oistrakh’s recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Ormandy was my first classical music recording and it captured my imagination as a 15-year-old. I was hooked on the classics! The three artists together were peerless. Try to set aside the poor video and listen to a perfect chamber trio in lockstep with a conductor they had long known.
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 23, “Appassionata”
Pianist Yuja Wang
So I don’t only offer orchestral masterworks, here is a non-orchestral work. This sonata is most moving to me, and feels like a personal “portal” into the private feelings of Beethoven. This is a video where it seems you have the privilege of sitting in a private room with one of the great pianists of our time, Yuja Wang.