Beethoven—and His Kitchen Sink

Being the first of three reviews of the Naxos 90-CD boxed set


In case you hadn’t checked your calendar and done the math—or somehow hadn’t heard yet—2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Since his birthday was December 16, we’re still more than a year away from the actual celebration, but that hasn’t stopped performing groups and recording companies from jumping on the bandwagon bright and early.

Naxos has jumped in quickly, and its set not only contains all of Beethoven’s published works, all of his unpublished works (the ones that are marked “WoO”)—but all manner of fragments and other arrangements, many of them recorded for the first time. Needless to say, few if any critics will have the time to audit all 90 discs and review them intelligently, but here’s my partial solution: three substantial reviews, each focusing on six CDs, somewhat logically selected (feel free to argue with that last statement!).

The first thing one notices is that the box is certainly well-organized, with the works broken down and color-coded into seven major sections: Orchestra, Concerto, Keyboard, Chamber, Stage, Choral and Vocal. Even the discs themselves have the corresponding color of their category, so it’s easy to put them back in the proper sleeve. Included is a 135-page booklet—98 pages of which are required just for the track listings! The information is detailed, with performers of course, date of recording, and the name of the engineer, producer, acoustic consultant and disc number if it comes from a previous release. As Naxos has been around since 1987, many of these performances have been previously released of course.

For this first review I opted to stick mostly to the “big” works, with an eye toward selecting personal favorite works. From the Orchestral group I chose Disc 3, containing Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6. The performances are by the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia, conducted by Bela Drahos, recorded in June, 1995.

In enjoying this first sampling, I quickly came to what may be an obvious conclusion: this mammoth project may be the perfect solution to ensuring that one possesses every note of the German giant (in case that’s something that’s been keeping you awake at night), but there are certain works one will certainly duplicate in one’s collection. I’ll be honest: not only did I not expect Drahos to best my favorite version of Symphony No. 5—I’ve never expected anyone to since I first acquired it in the mid-1970s. That would be the stunning Carlos Kleiber/Vienna Philharmonic reading; back in the day it was a pricey Deutsche Grammophon LP, that didn’t include anything else on the record. No matter; I played one copy to death, and for many years the CD release has been on my shelf.

What Drahos does do is utilize effective tempos, and elicits both a lean and powerful sound from the orchestra. The dynamic contrasts in the Scherzo and in the transitions from that material to the Finale (and back again, so to speak) are thoroughly effective.

Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral,” was for many years my favorite of all the Beethoven symphonies. It’s one of those pieces that I’ve loved so much that, unless a conductor and/or their orchestra totally screw it up, I’m going to enjoy it. Again, Drahos delivers a balanced reading, never fussy in its phrasing, and suitable flowing in the “Scene by the Brook.” The “Storm” is cataclysmic enough, and the “Shepherd’s Song” full of simple joy.

Next we move on to Disc 11 from the Concerto section, which includes Piano Concertos 3 and 4. The soloist is Stefan Vladar, with Barry Wordsworth conducting the Capella Istropolitana, recorded in 1988. All of the outer movments are solid; while I wish there was a bit more intensity in the great Largo of the Third Concerto, Vladar and company do a great job in the pivotal central movement of the Fourth. And we get our first bonus: 55 seconds of pianist Jeno Jando in an arrangement of the Coda to the finale of Piano Concerto No. 3. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that Jando recorded it in 1996!

From the Keyboard discs I chose Disc 24, containing the piano sonatas Nos. 24-28. The choice was partly practical; why not have a larger number of works, and the sequence includes two of my favorites, No. 24, Op. 78 and No. 26, “Les Adieux.” All of these are what me called vintage Jeno Jando, recorded originally in 1988. In case you’re wondering, there are a few of the 32 Sonatas that are not Jando’s performances.

The venerable Naxos star (he was one of the first Naxos artists to achieve a major reputation) is more than reliable of course, and the aforementioned favorites will get repeated hearings. But that’s due in part to what else Jando does on this disc:  No. 25, Op. 79 (subtitled “Kuckuck-Sonate”) was a bunch of fun, and I loved Jando’s handling of Nos. 27 and 28.

Disc 50 is this review’s entry from the Chamber Music section, namely the String Quartets Nos. 9 and 10, played by the Kodaly Quartet. Again, the “middle quartets” of Beethoven, including 7-9 known as the “Razumovsky” Quartets were and remain my favorites, and yes I hardly expect anyone to replace my beloved old Guarneri Quartet performances. But the Kodaly Quartet’s cycle, recorded in the 1990s (these two from 1998) were well received and hold up well.

Disc 71 is from the Stage Works section, and here was something new to me: the complete version of Egmont. A little over 45 minutes gives us Goethe’s text that follows the famous Overture. Bass Matti Salminen is the Narrator (and Egmont in the final track, the character’s only vocal appearance) and Kaisa Ranta is the soprano on two tracks. The whole is conducted by Leif Segerstam, with the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra. This filled a curiosity gap I’ve had for years about what the “rest” of Egmont was like—and caused to look for and find in the booklet the reference to a web link that includes all the texts and translations for the full set. The rest of the disc contains four rarities that also feature in part glass harmonica, harp and chorus.

Finally we come to Disc 74, with but a single work, Missa Solemnis. Obviously one of Beethoven’s towering masterpieces, there is likely little consensus on the “best” or even “favorite” performance. Like the mighty Symphony No. 9, the work offers myriad opportunities for exploration. This performance, recorded in 2003, has Kenneth Schermerhorn at the helm of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. They are indeed the stars of a solid reading; the quartet of soloists is admirable, although soprano Lori Phillips isn’t always at the level of her colleagues.

Thus we close the first look at Beethoven and his “kitchen sink.”  In a couple of weeks (or less) we’ll offer round two…and wrap up this “mini” review of 90 discs in time to order for Christmas—after all, isn’t there someone on your holiday shopping list who needs to hear every note Beethoven published, wrote and sketched?

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