Barenboim’s Un-Better Beethoven

Review by: Victor Carr Jr

Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 9

Daniel Barenboim’s 2000 Beethoven symphony cycle with the Staatskapelle Berlin on Teldec was a watermark achievement in his recorded output, as well as one of the finest modern cycles available (see review on this site). It’s a pity he could not leave well enough alone, for this new recording does not advance upon the earlier one, and in some ways undermines it.

A new heaviness of gait and texture has entered into Barenboim’s readings, particularly in Nos. 1, 3, 7, and 9. In terms of tempo the conductor already was among the “traditionalists” (rather than the period-performance practitioners), but here he moves toward the granitic style of Klemperer. Conversely, No. 2 is light, energetic, and quite enjoyable. This, and the potent and focused No. 4, represent the best readings in the cycle. No. 5, with its cartoonishly mannered first-movement theme, is the worst. There’s nothing really wrong with Nos. 3, 8, and 9, but there’s nothing memorable either, especially compared to the Teldec set.

The other big problem here is the orchestra. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is Barenboim’s project, bringing Middle Eastern musicians together in hopes of fostering peace in the region. (Perhaps he imagined Israeli and Palestinian combatants dropping their weapons and embracing each other upon hearing the strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.) However noble the effort, the bottom line is that the orchestra is not world-class, and the performances are not among the best available, so someone’s motivation for buying this release will be more altruistic than musical.

Decca’s recording sounds very good, especially on iTunes, where it is available for a bargain price (“Mastered for iTunes” releases are thankfully free of the distortion caused by Universal’s audible watermarking on its digital downloads). But this alone won’t be enough if you’re desiring a first-rate Beethoven cycle. Look instead to the recommended alternatives.



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Recording Details:

Album Title: BEETHOVEN FOR ALL
Reference Recording: Chailly (Decca); Barenboim (Teldec); Harnoncourt (Teldec); Wand (RCA); Szell (Sony)

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