Beethoven Times Three

For all those who love Beethoven, for all who wish to honor conductor Bernard Haitink's 90th birthday earlier this month (March 4), and for all who've been posting variations of, "Jason, for the love of God, free us from the horrors of contemporary music," this one's for you. Live from the London Symphony Orchestra, we present Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.2, Triple Concerto in C for piano, violin, and cello, and Leonore Overture No.2, Op.72a from LSO Live (LSO0745D). Although identified as a "CD" by and Amazon, this is a hi-resolution SACD, recorded in DSD64.

Reflecting period instrument scholarship, Haitink's Triple Concerto sounds light years apart from Karajan's famed 1969 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the all-Russian team of violinist David Oistrakh, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Theirs is a big-boned. mid 20th century affair with a mighty German orchestra and three stellar soloists who play with strength, authority, and romantic sweep. The highly-detailed, close-miked performance may not sound anything like what Beethoven expected, but it's one you won't forget.

Haitink, conducting in the acoustically compromised Barbican in 2005 (around when this performance was originally released), scales down the sound of his modern orchestra to something approaching what we believe Beethoven expected. The sound is different than in Beethoven's time, of course, because we're hearing a recording of modern instruments, captured in a 1943-seat hall with mediocre acoustics, from a Dutch conductor who eschews Karajan's German romantic tendencies in favor of a more classical approach. But when you hear the sweet, light, and captivating playing of Gordan Nikolitch, former leader of the LSO, Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and Chamber Orchestra of the Auvergne, you may very well warm to this performance as a viable alternative to an army of German musicians marching through Beethoven's homeland.

Nikolitch is at his peak in the second movement Largo, where he radiates tenderness and deep feeling. His sound, as befits someone who usually performs in an ensemble situation, is noticeably more slender than Oistrakh's, but that doesn't make it any less moving. If anything, Nikolitch's more vulnerable sound is an advantage in this music. His is playing to fall in love with.

Cellist Tim Hugh, a Tchaikovsky Competition winner who moves between solo gigs and work with several piano trios, lightens his tone accordingly. He often sounds much lighter and less earthy that many cellists. Pianist Lars Vogt also plays lightly. It's fair to say that, in contrast to the mighty Karajan trio, these three men care more about serving the music and Haitink's conception than broadcasting their individual personalities. Which is not to suggest that Oistrakh, Rostropovich, and Richter are anything but in synch with each other and their conductor's vision.

The absolute winner on this recording is Haitink and pianist Maria João Pires's account of Beethoven's first published piano concerto, the Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat, Op.19. Pires, whose recordings are too few, may have turned 69 in the year of the recording (2013), but she plays like a young pup. She smiles as she trips over and through multiple scales and runs, her joy spreading from keyboard to hall and into your listening space. Pires delights in Beethoven's occasional forays into Mozart-like symmetry, and joins with Haitink to give us a sweet and tender middle movement Adagio that rivals the Triple Concerto's Largo for depth of feeling. I can't find any clips of Pires with Haitink, so you'll have to enjoy her contemporaneous performance with Chailly below.

The Leonore Overture No.2 of 1805, the second of four versions of the overture that Beethoven penned for the opera eventually known as Fidelio, is a bit of a disappointment. Compared to John Eliot Gardiner's performance, which you can stream in Red Book quality on Tidal, Haitink gives us a very slow opening that wants for more tension. It takes him 44 seconds longer than Gardiner to reach the first big melodic expanse, and he kind of dies halfway through the piece. Maybe if I had turned the volume higher, or gotten more sleep, or not eaten that peach, I would have felt different. But such is life. There's still plenty on this recording to love. Note that this Haitink recording has also been released previously by the LSO, although perhaps not in hi-rez.

Anton's picture

On Amazon, if you look for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2, there are over 5,000 hits!

I love this work, but I am starting to wonder just how many versions we 'need' and how many more times I need to hear it.

I also admit to having heard "Hotel California" enough times to get me through the rest of this life, and the next!

I realize getting "cover fatigue" from the same songs being recorded over and over is anathema in the context of 'classical music,' but it's starting to make me understand better how poor Arnold Schoenberg was driven to invent dodecaphony...he wanted to hear something different!

Also kinda like how punk may have been a general musical reaction to things like The Moody Blues, et al.

Thank you for taking the hit on this one, Jason. I would utterly lack the energy to track/identify the 44 second differences before the first big melodic expanse. I absolutely appreciate the energy you put in!! Are there any works in the classical/opera canon that you are simply over and done with? I think that would make some interesting cocktail conversation!

Thank you again, I have acquired many fine recording thanks to your efforts.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Play It Again, Sam" ......... Tony Bennett :-) ...........

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

To the horror of long-time listener, this Jewish boy may have married a Catholic, but his taste in music does not extend to Bruckner. Maybe I've heard the wrong recordings, but I find myself, when I dare to once again try listening to one of his symphonies, going, "Okay. I got it. Must you repeat your argument one more time? I mean, really, how pedantic can you get?" Again, that's just me.

Before Munich High End begins, I'll review Tosca at Bayerische Staatsoper. I've seen this opera many, many times, and I know what to expect. I don't consider it a shabby little shocker, however; I think that, despite its over-the-top melodramatic excess, it's a fabulous vehicle for soprano, tenor, and baritone. So if the singers are excellent, I'm hooked, even if I can whistle" Vissi d'Arte" backwards without missing a note. (On that score, I whistled it for my husband last night while we were driving home from San Francisco Symphony's wonderful performance in Seattle, and he said that I really should perform it onstage.)

If the music is great, and the performance is great, I'm happy to hear it again. At the same time, I find myself more and more eager to explore new music. Some of it works for me, and some doesn't. But that's no different than every new person you meet. And I will never tire of meeting people and exploring what they're about. Ditto for equipment. I really do love what I do.

Long-time listener's picture

*Maybe I've heard the wrong recordings, but I find myself, when I dare to once again try listening to one of his symphonies, going, "Okay. I got it. Must you repeat your argument one more time? I mean, really, how pedantic can you get?"*

I can understand "glacial" or many other adjectives as applied to Bruckner, but this is the first time I've heard "pedantic." And of course I wonder what you really "got" when you "got it." But anyway, it's not too different from my descriptions of Mahler, which will likewise not be recognizable to you. There was one period when I enjoyed Mahler's music--especially the 7th, often deemed his most questionable symphony, which shows how well I understand his music I guess. That, and the 3rd. But many of the others, including the 2nd, seem to be self-consciously striving for greater dramatic effect than his melodic material is capable of generating. So it seems very contrived to me.

But anyway, subjectivity rules. More power to you. Bruckner, "pedantic." Mahler, "contrived." OK. Enjoy what you enjoy. You advocate Mahler, I'll advocate Bruckner. Heh heh heh.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

times two.

Long-time listener's picture

"Are there any works in the classical/opera canon that you are simply over and done with?"

I certainly can't name any such works. But the fortunes of certain pieces, and certain composers, certainly do wax and wane. Possibly more waxing going on than waning. Mahler, a composer I'll never love, is doing great, even if I usually find his music too shallow and maudlin for my tastes. Bruckner, a composer I do love, is also doing great. Remy Ballot's series of recordings with the Altomonte Orchestra of St. Florian's is unique in presenting the slow-moving majesty and the spiritual arc of his symphonies, though previous recordings by Karajan, Giulini, Scrowakzewski, and others are at least their equals.

Then there's Hindemith. His best music has an elegant and sometimes austere beauty, and can be very uplifting. I buy every recording I can find of his Symphony: Mathis der Maler and his Nobilissima Visione. But he is sadly performed somewhat less than before, and perhaps will await another generation to re-discover him.

But over and done with? I just don't know. Are you curious about what CDs NOT to buy?

Anton's picture

When was the last time you played Beethoven's Fifth Symphony?

It's gotta be 30 years, for me.

Haydn 94, oh, man, keep it away from me. I prefer John Cage's 4:33.

If God Himself released a new version of Mozart's "Magic Flute," I'd throw in with Satan.

Kids can watch Winnie the Pooh 500 times and still be amused, but how many cover versions of Fur Elise does it take before we get it and move on?

I am not just picking on classical music, but they tend to keep rehashing the endless treadmill. We rarely read about the newest version of Waltz For Debby, unless it's for something like the 59th re-jiggering of the Beatles' White Album that has been remastered for our never ending repetitive pleasure.

ok's picture

..the whole thing arises from the simple fact that classical music is for the most –and most significant– part composition royalties-free.

Long-time listener's picture

I do listen to Beethoven symphonies still, but only several times a year. Same with most classical music--the thrill is in the original discovery, and hearing new versions is just an attempt to keep that original excitement alive. Beethoven's 5th will never have the power it once did for me.

But a few pieces will always retain their hold on me. As a new listener it was very easy to listen to Vaughan Williams, but I never thought his 9th was any good. Suddenly, many years on as on older person, I understand the meaning of what he wrote in his 80s, and the sense of deep mystery in that music, and the cosmic yearning of the ending, make it a must listen for me.

And once in a while you discover new stuff that is fun--Jon Liefs' "Saga Symphony" being one. Kind of a Nordic Rite of Spring, in five movements.

Beyond that, it's free-form electronic music. The three-disc film score for "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," or for "Book of Eli," or maybe "Interstellar." Whatever one can find.

Happy listening

pbarach's picture

They are excitingly performed. Yes, the Barbican sound is a little dry (more in some of the recordings than others). But excellent SACD-surround.

John Atkinson's picture
The best Mahler 2 I have heard live was with Haitink in the 1980s. He took you on a journey and left you exulted but destroyed. Worst Mahler 2 live: Ozawa.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

monetschemist's picture

... he's too modern for my tastes.

But along the line "can you hear it too often", I would say "definitely" to Bach's Violin Concerti in A minor BWV1041 and E BWV1042. I would have said "definitely" to Le Quattro Stagioni as well until I heard the version by Brecon Baroque / Podger, but that's the exception that proves the rule.

Ortofan's picture

... then I'd prefer either Arrau or Brendel as the soloist.
As for the Triple Concerto, it would be any recording with the trio of Stern, Rose and Istomin.

foxhall's picture

I'm a big fan of Haitink's (LSO) Beethoven cycle on SACD from a few years back. In fact, it's now one of my two favorite cycles along with the Gardiner/Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique on Archiv. So, I guess I need to get this recording.

volvic's picture

I would take what Richter said about the recording with a grain of salt, in typically Russian dry wit, much like Gilels, you never knew how serious he was when critiquing. I believe he was mostly talking about the photos rather than the performance, although I have read that Karajan came down from the podium at one point and sat at the piano explaining to Richter how he wanted it played. However those two had other collaborations together so it couldn't have been as bad as Richter said if he performed again with him. It's true that Karajan was vain and a poseur as Menuhin called him, but he was also an exceptional conductor with many misconceptions and more successes. While it isn't the definitive version, I would challenge anyone to not be impressed by the performance made by the three soloists, not to mention the sound of the BPO. When you get three champion performers playing together like this even if their version isn't the definitive one, they still have more to say than other performers have with the same piece over the years. The numbers sold and its longevity in the catalogue is I believe a vindication of that belief. My personal favourites are two; Philips recording with Szerying, Arrau and Starker conducted by Inbal, simply fabulous. Over the last decade I have come to the realization that Arrau could do no wrong, he was simply stellar in any piece of music he approached. Also, a Fournier, Geza Anda, Schneiderhan version with the great, great Ferenc Fricsay who left us way too early and would have in my opinion, challenged Karajan for maestro of Europe.

As for Brucker it took me years to fully appreciate all of his works, I believe I was 31 when I finally had my a-ha moment with his music. Today I have numerous versions of his works from Jochum, Celibidache, Abbado, Wand, Bohm, Karajan and Furtwangler and others, all beautifully played, but each with different approaches. I believe his symphonies and masses are some of the greatest music ever written. Bruckner was an oddball, he was so neurotic that he would count the number of bars in his compositions to make sure that they were statistically and proportionally correct, only then do you suddenly gain an appreciation for his music, then realize how beautiful and devotional it is.

Maybe JVS you haven't approached it with the right frame, but I believe at some point you will. Peter Phillips of the Tallis Scholars told me after one of his performances a few years ago (2016), that he was recently drawn to the music of Brucker through the Gunter Wand performances, I suggested he try the Karajan version to which he responded "we're not going to start this argument are we?" Oops, embarassing for me. In any event my point is that he discovered Bruckner in what I suspect is his 50's, so to each is own and there is still time to love it.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

We're not going to start this argument, are we?