Steinberg & Pittsburgh’s Classic Beethoven Symphonies

Review by: Victor Carr Jr


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 7

Though not the dominant classical label it once was, the Deutsche Grammophon logo on a recording still bestows a certain prestige, a prestige that was certainly due William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony. In the 1960s RCA and Columbia had divided the “big five” orchestras among themselves, and left the equally fine Pittsburgh to the smaller labels. This Beethoven set was originally released on Command Classics, and appears for the first time complete on CD.

Steinberg was Toscanini‘s assistant at the NBC Symphony, so it hardly surprises that his Beethoven is fleet, energized, clear-textured, and exciting. He highly valued letting the music speak for itself–no breast-beating or philosophizing here, just pure Beethoven.

The Pittsburgh Symphony plays brilliantly throughout the cycle, with special merit for the strings and woodwinds. The performances are first-rate, on par with the contemporaneous Szell, Bernstein, Karajan, and Leibowitz recordings. Symphonies 3, 5, 6, and 7 are particularly fine, while No. 4 ranks as one of the best on disc.

The Ninth is a special case. Steinberg used the Mahler edition of the score, which, among other instrumental adjustments, adds a tuba—prominently heard in the great climax of the first movement. The first three movements are very good, although the Scherzo is let down by the same muted timpani (you hear it reverberating rather than being struck) that afflicts the whole cycle. The Finale suffers from a double affliction. First, Steinberg plays it more like an oratorio than a dramatic symphony (the famous “O freunde” comes off rather stiffly here); and, DG was reportedly unable to locate the original master for this track, and had to resort to using an LP pressing, with the resulting sound quality noticeably inferior to the rest of the set.

Indeed, the audio quality overall is a bit perplexing. Recorded on 35mm film, the sound sports impressive dynamic range for its time, with solid bass and no distortion from tape saturation. However, the engineering emphasizes the upper frequencies, resulting in an over-bright, almost metallic sound. This effect varies depending on the speakers or headphones being used. But the best way to mitigate this is to play at high volume to recreate the sensation of a huge, high-ceilinged room filled with sound.

Even with the above quibbles, the Steinberg/Pittsburgh Beethoven symphonies are a must-hear, especially for connoisseurs of 1960s-era performing style. Kudos to DG for making it available, especially at budget price.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Wand (RCA); Chailly (Decca); Szell (Sony)

    Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, William Steinberg

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