25 Essential Beethoven Recordings: The 'Pastoral' Symphony

Friday, November 30, 2012

To wrap up our month-long survey of the 25 essential Beethoven recordings, we meet the composer's "folk" side. Beethoven wasn't the first composer to depict scenes from nature, but with his "Pastoral" Symphony, he fashioned a compelling new language of musical portraiture. Everything from a cuckoo to a summer thunderstorm are captured with loving detail. And the sounds of nature aren't mere effects but part of a larger musical fabric.

On the podium, conductor George Szell was not known for his sunny, light-spirited personality — quite the opposite — but his touch is just right in this 1960s recording with Cleveland. Each of the movements is leisurely, detailed and quite lovely but he whips up the drama in the climaxes too. The Severance Hall acoustics come through with remarkable fidelity in this remastering.

You can read the complete list of our 25 Essential Recordings here, and in the comments below tell us: What is your favorite Beethoven recording of the Sixth Symphony? Of all time?

Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1 & 6
Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell
Available at Arkivmusic.com


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Comments [13]

A J Abrams from NYC

Bruno Walter is still the ideal for me - I never tire of his version.

Mar. 04 2015 01:57 PM
Phil, Poole from Poole

There are a lot of very good Pastorals including several from the early years of electric recording from 1926 to 1930 that should not be overlooked. These include from Germany (including Austria), Hans Pfitzner, Franz Schalk and Max von Schillings, from England the 1927 Weingartnerwith the RPO and from America the 1928 Koussevitzky with the Boston orchestra. However, even better than these, and also outclassing all post-War recordings even by himself, is, I believe, the 1937 Toscanini with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Toscanini was a marvellous conductor and in the 1930s still conducted with a wonderful flexibility that later was gradually lost - even the 1939 performance in his live Beethoven cycle with the NBC Orchestra is not the same.

May. 29 2014 05:10 AM
M Don Frampton from Devon England

When it comes to Beethoven it could be said that each of his devotees are in search of the perfect Pastoral. Tonight, on the way home from a recorded music evening I heard a very interesting recording of it by the Montreal symphony. I got home and searxch my own collection .. a Roger Norrington with the London Classical Players..The Staatskappelle Dresden 1979 recording under Blomstedt. I need a Karl Bohm recording of it. Each of us like our steaks in our own way - and its the same with LVB. Some orchestras should be forbidden to play any LVB because they lack the discipline so, for me, that rules out most American orchestras.

I am aware this correspondence is some 2 years old... so whats two years as we celebrate tyhe 200th year suince the first perfomance of the greatest symphony ever written.. the Eroica.

Mar. 05 2014 06:09 PM
jean from Canada

I agree regarding Reiner's 'Pastoral' with the CSO. It simply is the best version I have heard, overall. I also like very much a recording of that work from Tennstedt with the LPO, although it is not nearly as good as the aforementioned Reiner.

Feb. 16 2014 10:33 AM
Roy from Portugal

Andre Cluytens, 1960, BPO. Superb!

May. 25 2013 07:13 AM

Thanks Andrew B., for letting me know Szell omitted the repeat in the first movement! I heard this particular recording for the first time on WV Public Radio this afternoon, but missed most of the opening movement. I was really impressed with all I did hear, however! I agree with you completely about the "old school" treatment in this very special Beethoven symphony. My personal favorite recording of the P. Symphony has been (and still is) for many years, Georg Solti with the CSO,1975. Super-old school, as Solti always is, but like you said---it works wonderfully in this symphony. I would have said this Szell just may become right up there, for me---but not if he omitted that repeat. I liked your splicing idea, though---and I just might try that!

Feb. 22 2013 03:26 PM
Andrew B. from Lower Merion, PA

This is perhaps the one Beethoven symphony that succeeds in the "old school" orchestral playing, before the period-instruments approach was applied to modern instruments by Harnoncourt, Zinman and others (more recently, Haitink and Chailly), to hasten speeds and tighten vibrato. Although I don't particularly distaste Beethoven's symphonies on period instruments, I think Beethoven was more forward looking, pushing the boundaries of instruments, and therefore the music is much better conveyed on modern oboes, flutes, clarinets, strings, etc. Therefore I generally like the combination of modern instruments with the period instrument approach.

But the Sixth is in a whole different class than the other symphonies (five movements(!), moderato finale without fanfare, programmatic movement titles (!)). Absolutely wild and ground-breaking! I like the "old school" approach here, luxurious tempi, sweet strings, long melodic lines.

Szell gets everything right... EXCEPT FOR OMITTING THE 1ST MVT. REPEAT!!!, a common "old school" practice that is simply inexcusable, but for the need to fit the music on the shorter-playing old vinyl LPs (if indeed that was the reason here, although I don't know that the perfectionist Szell would have caved to commercial pressures). I miss that reassuring return to hear the Sixth's sweet, sauntering, seductively soft opening a second time (THE WAY BEETHOVEN WROTE IT). It is worth 2 minutes of your time to hear the repeat. Maybe someone could splice a Szell version with the repeat.

Nov. 30 2012 02:07 PM

Also, a footnote. I have also counted as a favorite recording Karl Bohm's "Pastoral" (Beethoven Symphony No. 6) with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG. Classicalcdguide touts it as presenting the "human side" of the piece. I find it sonically warm and lovely.

Nov. 30 2012 12:55 PM

Addressing Don Fodor's question, Maynard Solomon's /Beethoven/ (Schirmer 1977)is a biography I have found quite informative. Amazon has a revised edition listed. I also note that UC Press has a /Late Beethoven/ by Solomon. Looks interesting. http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520243392
Also see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maynard_Solomon

Nov. 30 2012 12:50 PM
Peter Barach

Wrong picture here--that's the cover of an earlier recording that Szell made in New York.

Nov. 30 2012 12:40 PM
Don Fodor from Dunellen, New Jersey

I'm going a little off topic here but I have a Beethoven related question. After listening all month and learning so much about Beethoven, I want to learn even more. Can anyone suggest a good biography to read about him? I've found what I've heard to be very fascinating and would like to continue to get to know his life better. Any recommendations? It's been a great month. Thanks!

Nov. 30 2012 12:19 PM
Milton Cohen from Richardson, TX

Regarding the best "Pastoral," I'd offer three classics from the 1950s-1960s:
1. The Toscanini conveys not only his typically propulsive drive, but also a remarkable tenderness. He does, however, take some liberties with the storm, adding (I believe) trumpets and drum at crucial moments.
2. The Bruno Walter version (richer, more leisurely) is nearly always cited as a classic performance.
3. My own personal favorite is the Reiner/Chicago with a storm that sizzles.

One to avoid: the 1962 Karajan, which sounds perfunctory and chilly.

Nov. 30 2012 11:33 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, NJ

The Pastoral Symphony is one of the most delightful, bumptious, lively nature-descriptive works in all music. Beethoven's symphonies, opera, concertos, sonatas, string quartets, overtures, tone poems, chamber music generally, bagatelles, and song literature, is so pervasive and his world consciousness and basic humanity construct an icon unparalleled to and past his own era. At Juilliard, I studied his oeuvre and , in those days, all singers learned the concert rep of Beethoven , Schubert , Schumann, Wolf and Grieg, whether they would be opera singers or concert singers . So much of our treasured masterpieces, vocal and instrumental, are unknown quantities to most Americans. THANK YOU WQXR FOR CELEBRATING BEETHOVEN !!! Beethoven's symphonies are the ABCs of most essential single composers' oeuvre of the symphonic literature. Who ever having heard the Waldstein well performed can ever forget its beauty and nuanced scope of emotions. Wagner and his contemporaries and their successors all recognized the epic achievement of Beethoven. I am a romantischer Wagnerian heldentenor and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute at 418A Main Street, Boonton, NJ . I have sung four solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall. As part of my Ten Language Solo Debut concert at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, I sang the Gott ! welch dunkel hier ! aria of Fidelio. it can be heard from the live performance on my three websites, one of which is www.WagnerOpera.com It received rave critical notices in newspapers and magazines. Rudolf Serkin and his son, Peter are among those other great interpreters of Beethoven's piano concertos and sonatas, Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Walter Gieseking, ignace Paderevski and Simon Barere, remarkable for their virtuosity, and immense ability to interpret from their own perspective. The Beethoven violin concerto is celebrated by its ardent interpreters Heifetz, Menuhin, Kreisler, Francescatti, Sarasate Paganini and Perlman.

Nov. 30 2012 10:07 AM

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