February 06, 2020
(++++) BIG BEETHOVEN, BIG BOX, BIG BARGAIN
Beethoven: Complete Edition. Naxos. $129.99 (90 CDs).
The proliferation of recordings of Beethoven’s music in acknowledgment of the 250th anniversary of his birth is scarcely a surprise. Equally unsurprising, under the circumstances, is the comparative abundance of more-or-less “complete” recordings of Beethoven’s works. What is a surprise is just how high-quality these “complete” releases are, and, in one particular case, how incredible a value a “Beethoven Edition” can be.
The 90-disc Naxos collection called Beethoven: Complete Edition is in some senses no surprise at all: Naxos has a tremendously deep and broad catalogue of releases spanning many decades, so assembling a Beethoven box from existing material is not as difficult as it would be for other firms. For example, the company has not one but two versions of the complete music to Egmont, the first with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Judd and recorded in 2003/2007, and the second (the one used in this boxed set) with the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam and recorded in 2018. Furthermore, Naxos has enough agreements with musicians worldwide so that it had a comparatively easy way of filling in the relatively small number of missing short pieces needed to complete a release of various parts of Beethoven’s oeuvre. And for filling in a few larger pieces that it would be impractically expensive to produce just for this release, Naxos has agreements with other companies, notably Brilliant Classics, for use, in this special context, of their existing performances.
Nevertheless, the uniformly high quality of the musicianship throughout this release, coupled with the extraordinary price of $1.44 per disc (and that is the undiscounted price: discounts may be available), makes the Naxos “complete” Beethoven edition as close to a must-have as it can be for classical-music lovers, no matter how many versions of the more-familiar works by Beethoven they already have in their collections.
Naxos used to produce multi-CD offerings that it called “White Boxes,” for projects such as Bruckner’s complete symphonies conducted by Georg Tintner and Mozart’s symphonies conducted by Nicholas Ward and Barry Wordsworth. The clean, attractive look of those earlier “complete” boxes has been carried through and improved for the Beethoven edition, making it good-looking enough to merit display on its own, even somewhere apart from the rest of a listener’s collection. The preponderance of white on the box is reminiscent of the look of Google’s home page, and the box’s design subtleties are carried through the whole set. On the outside, the words “Complete Edition” appear with their letters in seven different colors – the same colors used for the CD sleeves inside, the labels on the individual CDs, and the color-coded inner box lid, which has one color apiece for music designated “Orchestral,” “Concerto,” “Keyboard,” “Chamber” (the largest category, a fact that may surprise some listeners), “Stage,” “Choral,” and “Vocal.” Although a box like this one, made entirely of paper and cardboard, may not be super-durable, it should last a long time if handled gingerly and with the respect the production and the music deserve. And the use of these materials is part of what makes the remarkably low cost of the enterprise possible.
Naxos’ handling of ancillary material is also intelligent and cost-effective at the same time. The 136-page booklet is mainly devoted to giving the timings, performer names, recording dates and prior-release information about the music. There are no sung texts or translations – instead, those are available online, and that is a thoroughly reasonable if admittedly occasionally frustrating approach. Also reasonable but occasionally frustrating is the sole essay in the booklet, a 30-pager that manages to be both skimpy and repetitious but is nevertheless a satisfactory overview of the material. Naxos has not so much “cut corners” in this set as it has found ways to offer a high-quality, attractive box of most of Beethoven’s music at an exceptional price.
That “most of” is more accurate than the word “complete” that appears on the box. It is only fair to note that there are quite a few omissions from the set, albeit in most cases minor ones such as variants of songs or fragments of movements. A few pieces, though, are notable by their absence. Missing is the sketch for the first movement of Symphony No. 10, which was recorded as long ago as 1989 (conducted by Walter Weller). Also omitted is the sketch of the first movement of what would have become Piano Concerto No. 6, recorded recently by Sophie-Mayuko Vetter and conducted by Peter Ruzicka. And there is no performance here of the original panharmonicon version of Wellington’s Victory – although the fact that none of Mälzel’s instruments survived World War II makes hearing that version only a dream.
However, the point of this set is not what is missing but what is included – and with what quality. And it is the nearly universal excellence of the performances here, both of the great music and of the not-so-great, that makes this set so distinguished even apart from its price. The great-and-familiar material is certainly well done. The symphonies are played by the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia conducted by Béla Drahos. As the ensemble’s name indicates, this is a group more suited to Haydn than one would expect it to be to Beethoven, but it is one whose size is closer to what Beethoven would generally have had available for his symphonies than is the size of a modern symphony orchestra. Thus, hearing not only the Haydnesque works (Nos. 1 and 2) but also the larger-scale ones (up to and including No. 9) with this group provides a perspective that is intriguing and not often available when listening to Beethoven. The piano concertos and sonatas are a bit more of a mixed bag, because the performers differ from work to work – resulting in a lack of consistency in approach that is the single biggest criticism that can be leveled at this release. In the concertos, the early work in E-flat (sometimes called “No. 0”) features Martin Galling and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carl-August Bünte, and this is a charming reading despite the oddity that the finale, whose theme is one of Beethoven’s most delightful, is here marked Allegro, ma non troppo, rather than the correct Allegretto. Concertos Nos. 1-5 are nicely played by Stefan Vladar and Capella Istropolitana conducted by the aforementioned Barry Wordsworth. The piano arrangement of the Violin Concerto features Jenő Jandó with Drahos and his ensemble – and for the Triple Concerto, Jandó and Drahos are joined by violinist Dong-Suk Kang and cellist Maria Kliegel, the latter being especially noteworthy whenever she appears in these recordings. Also noteworthy is the excellent Takako Nishizaki, who is the soloist in the Violin Concerto with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Jean – a 1988 recording that still holds up very well.
Clearly there is something of a potpourri feeling to this Beethoven collection because of the multiplicity of performers. Thankfully, the piano sonatas are offered in numerical order – not everything here is arranged with equal simplicity – but although Jandó performs most of them, the well-known Nos. 8 (“Pathétique”), 21 (“Waldstein”), and 32 are played by Boris Giltburg, whose approach is equally satisfactory but generally more emotive and less percussive than Jandó’s. And the less-known piano sonatas outside the canonical sequence of 32, along with various other pieces, are played by still other pianists, including Sergio Gallo, Carl Petersson, Larry Weng, and Ian Yungwook Yoo. There is also some noticeable variability of sound quality – no surprise in light of the fact that the recordings collected here were mostly made over a 30-plus-year time period, between 1987 and 2019, with a few dating back to a time even before the advent of digital recording, such as the early Piano Concerto No. “0” from a 1968 performance. Despite all this, the sonic environment is never less than satisfactory, and in most of the newer recordings it is excellent.
When it comes to chamber music, again the performances are quite fine despite being spread among different artists. Outstanding here are Kliegel and pianist Nina Tichman, who play the six cello sonatas as well as three sets of variations, one based on a selection from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus and two taken from arias in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Kliegel and Tichman are joined by violinist Ida Bieler to make up the Xyrion Trio for the Piano Trios, which are consistently excellent. And the String Quartets are well-handled by the Kodály Quartet (which, however, uses two different violists). The String Quintets are played by the Fine Arts Quartet with Gil Sharon as additional viola, and the Violin Sonatas are handled (very adeptly) by Nishizaki and Jandó. It is difficult to keep track of just who is playing what piece without a scorecard of sorts – and this shows the wisdom of Naxos’ booklet design, which very clearly indicates who is performing what specific track on every CD. Listeners will quickly note that the less-known pieces, including some world première recordings of juvenilia and rediscovered items, are often handled by different musicians from those who play more-familiar works for the same instruments.
Because nearly all these CDs are re-releases in new packaging, their sequencing can lead to some presentation oddities that listeners need to accept for full enjoyment of this substantial set. For instance, it would be reasonable to expect the four overtures to Fidelio to appear on the same disc, but they do not – and they are in fact difficult to find. Nos. 1 and 3 are in the “Orchestral” section, performed by the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stephen Gunzenhauser. To find No. 2 and the Fidelio overture, one must turn to the “Stage” section and the two operas there: Fidelio in its familiar form (1814) and its earlier incarnation as Leonore (1805), which is one of the most unusual offerings in the entire set and predates the era of digital recording – it features Staatskapelle Dresden under Herbert Blomstedt and was recorded in 1976 (this is one of the items originally released on Brilliant Classics).
Most of the unfamiliar material sprinkled throughout the 90 CDs is far less consequential than the complete Leonore, but the lesser pieces often shed new light on Beethoven and humanize him in the process. For example, his Op. 109, the monumental “Hammerklavier” sonata (No. 29), contrasts strikingly with Op. 107, a set of national variations for flute and piano, and Op. 108, a group of Scottish songs – one set among many written to words in various languages and intended for amateur performance. Beethoven was not exactly happy about being commissioned to write such material, but he did, after all, need money, and hearing what he created on this level is revelatory even though the music is not. Indeed, there are a lot of small-scale songs in the “Vocal” section of this release, and there is something delightful in hearing Beethoven’s setting of Auld Lang Syne.
It is worth remembering that Beethoven, in addition to being a towering genius who was largely responsible for ushering in the Romantic era in music, was an occasional composer – that is, he often wrote material for specific occasions, and some of it was decidedly pedestrian. Even such pieces gain new insight in this collection. For example, Wellington’s Victory has become popular as an orchestral showpiece, but it is virtually unknown in its piano version (which Petersson plays with relish). And Das glorreiche Augenblick (“The Glorious Moment”), intended to celebrate the Congress of Vienna’s attempt to return Europe to pre-Napoleonic status, is almost never heard today; the same is true of the cantatas on the death of Emperor Joseph II and the accession of Emperor Leopold II. Also, although The Creatures of Prometheus is at least occasionally performed as a complete work in its orchestral form, it, like Wellington’s Victory, has a piano version that is nearly unknown (Warren Lee performs it in this set).
Naxos’ “complete” Beethoven mixes the fascinating with the frustrating. Musically, there is a preponderance of the former. Organizationally, there are periodic irritations to which listeners simply have to adjust. The booklet occasionally puts Beethoven’s name before a specific piece for no discernible reason – probably those instances are typesetting carryovers from the original recordings. Listeners who already own certain Naxos discs may find their contents incorporated into this collection but spread around differently here from the way they were originally collected, perhaps leading to some confusion: for instance, the six tracks of Yoo’s CD of piano variations (Naxos 8.572160) show up on three separate discs here (Nos. 27, 28 and 30); and the wind music originally on Naxos 8.573942 is also on three separate CDs (Nos. 59, 61 and 62). Labeling is not always correct in this compilation: for example, one CD (No. 47) says that “tracks 1-18” date to 1993, but the disc has only eight tracks; another (No. 26) refers to tracks "12-15" but has only 14 tracks. Also, the “overview” essay states that the Appassionata sonata (No. 23) was “completed in 1905” rather than 1805, while the listing for disc 31 gives the dates of the four-hand sonata, Op. 6, as "1896-97" rather than 1796-97. And so on – there are little errors and inelegances like these throughout. But this is a monumental project and, on the whole, a remarkably successful undertaking. Given the multiple sources from which these recordings are drawn, and the very large number of pieces of music included, it is scarcely shocking that there are occasional mistakes and slip-ups, even if ideally there would be none. What is quite surprising is that there are so few of them, and that the ones that do appear have so minor an effect on the overall quality of the production and of the release as a whole. What Naxos calls Beethoven: Complete Edition may not be complete and may not offer anything truly revelatory either in the well-known music or in the tidbits and trifles peppered throughout. But it is an exceptional bit of one-stop shopping for the music, from the highly familiar to the almost totally unknown, of a giant of the music world, whose birth 250 years ago is entirely deserving of the tributes now being offered. And this specific tribute is one of which Naxos can certainly be proud.