In our skeptical age, Beethoven's nine symphonies have been subjected to a degree of cavil and criticism in an attempt to shake the hold they have exercised over many generations of lovers of music. But, regardless of these attempts, in their grandeur, passion, variety, and depths of feeling, Beethoven's symphonies remain at the heart of music. Beethoven's symphonies are unique in the manner in which they reach out to the listener to produce involvement in the drama created by the score. Although only one symphony, the "Pastorale" has an explicitly programmatic content, it is difficult to hear these works without feeling Beethoven's effort to communicate to the listener feelings of the highest inspiration. The moods of the symphonies range widely from the humor of nos. 4 and 8, through the lyricism of the slow movement of no. 2, the "heroism" of nos. 3 and 5, and the grand hymn of no. 9. The symphonies cover the course of Beethoven's entire compositional career. The First Symphony, which is much indebted to Haydn and Mozart, is the product of Beethoven's young manhood in Vienna while the Ninth, completed in 1824, is separated from its nearest predecessors by 12 years. Symphonies 2 -- 8, in all their variety, are the product of an extraordinary productive decade of composition (1803 -- 1813).
On the whole the Beethoven symphonies are highly tonal and their melodies and strong repeated rhythms make them accessible even to relatively unsophisticated listeners. Beethoven is truly a composer with universal appeal. The symphonies have been a source of inspiration to me throughout my life. They are essential listening for those just coming to classical music.
Beethoven's the symphonies have been well-served on recordings, both for individual works and for compilations of the entire cycle. I have been rehearing and rethinking the Beethoven symphonies in this highly-acclaimed set recorded by the American conductor David Zinman (b. 1938) and the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich in the late 1990s. Zinman uses the new Barenreiter edition of the scores prepared by Jonathan Del Mar which makes numerous changes in orchestration from the earlier edition commonly used in performances.
Zinman offers period performances of Beethoven using modern instruments. Those listeners familiar with other recordings of the symphonies will notice at the outset the fast tempos. Zinman tends to avoid rubato (subtle shifts of tempo) and other romantic gestures, and the strings have a clean, simple sound. With the quick tempos, there is a lightness and a lyricism to Zinman's readings that is immediate and endearing. The tempos do not lead to a driving performance of these scores but rather to readings with a graceful, lilting quality. The orchestra has a transparent sound, and the winds come through prominently and beautifully. The impact of the Barenreiter edition varies from work to work, but I found it most pronounced in the "Eroica" symphony, with the violin solo in the finale, and in the Fourth symphony.
In this set, I enjoyed most the performances where Zinman brought new insight to these works; and I found these insights strongest in symphonies 3,4, and 7. The Symphony no. 3 "Eroica" is perhaps the greatest of the symphonies. In his tempos, vigor, and lightness, in the passages for winds and brass, and in the surprising violin solo in the finale, Zinman offers a splendid account. The Fourth Symphony, which remains the least heard of the nine, also receives an outstanding reading, especially in the lovely slow movement. In the Seventh Symphony, Zinman is superb in bringing out the rhythms and the many kinds of moving dance-like movement in the score. The second movement, allegretto, is taken at a faster than usual pace, but it captures the mixture of tragedy and joy that is inherent in this remarkable music. I also thought Zinman's reading of the Second symphony, a work on the cusp of his early and middle styles highly impressive. The weaker moments of the compilation include portions of the Ninth Symphony, especially the second movement, where I thought the tempo was too driven, and perhaps moments in the "Pastorale" symphony, which could have used more rhythmic variety in the finale. But Zinman still offers impressive readings of these works. Altogether, this is an outstanding set that will introduce the new listener to this music and that will have a great deal to offer those who have long loved the Beethoven symphonies.
Zinman's performances are on the budget-priced Arte Nova label. The symphonies are available in a 5-CD compilation or in five individually packaged single CDs.