It’s been 23 years since the last Deutsche Grammophon Beethoven Complete Edition was released in 1997 to coincide with the somewhat arbitrary 170th anniversary of the composer’s death. Since then, a fair amount of scholarly water has flowed under this particular composer’s bridge, so what was formerly an 87-disc set now comes in at an eye-watering 118 discs, three Blu-ray audio (the Karajan 1963 symphony cycle, the Kempff stereo set of the piano sonatas and the Amadeus’s survey of the string quartets), plus DVDs of Bernstein’s powerful Wiener Staatsoper Fidelio in Otto Schenk’s staging with Kollo and Janowitz, and Carlos Kleiber conducting the Concertgebouw in Symphonies Nos 4 and 7.
It’s not all new discoveries, although there are plenty of turn-ups for the books, but much of the set’s wide-ranging curation has focused on alternative interpretations recognising that Karajan, for all his virtues, is not the be-all and end-all where Beethoven is concerned. That means four cycles of the symphonies, several trawls through the piano sonatas, ditto for the string quartets, plus a whopping 16 discs devoted to “classic” and “period” performances.
It all comes in a beautiful cube of a box with detailed booklets discussing a variety of aspects of the works themselves. Best of all is a 264-page hardback book with insightful essays into the man, his music, and his personal beliefs, accompanied by immaculate, full-colour reproductions of all things Beethoven, from the portraits, to prints of the places he visited and the artefacts that travelled with him through life. Yes, it’s pricey – currently $380 on Amazon Australia – but I’d happily pay $80 for the book alone.
So, exactly what bang do you get for your buck? Orchestral music first, and (not counting the Karajan on Blu-ray) there is a trio of complete cycles, including John Eliot Gardiner’s game-changing period set with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique from the early 1990s. There’s a “Vienna Cycle” featuring the Vienna Phil conducted by Bernstein and Kleiber, among others, and a standard cycle featuring distinguished performances by Chailly, Abbado, and a fabulous No 5 from Giulini.
Concertos are doubled up, with piano concertos going to Argerich (Nos 1 and 2, a stunning pair of live accounts), alongside Brendel and Pollini (Nos 3 and 4), Buchbinder, Gulda, and either Kempff or Zimerman with Bernstein in the Emperor. Repin and Mutter do the Violin Concerto honours with the Chung Trio in the Triple Concerto. There’s also Barenboim in Beethoven’s piano concerto transcription of the Violin Concerto and a fascinating reconstruction of Beethoven’s first attempt at a piano concerto (WoO 4) with Ronald Brautigam on fortepiano. In fact, WoO (Werke ohne Opuszahl, or works without opus numbers) feature a lot in this set and offer one of its most intriguing attractions. Beethoven wrote a remarkable 228 such works, many of them regularly and unfairly overlooked, not least of which are his enormous and deliciously disarming body of folk song settings from the British Isles.
Tracing Beethoven’s works for the theatre from the early dances via Beethoven’s only ballet – The Creatures of Prometheus with the sprightly Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – and on through the incidental music to Egmont, The Ruins of Athens, The Consecration of the House and the barely known King Stephen, is a journey filled with the kind of dramatic ideas that would reach their apogee in Fidelio. That opera is represented by Abbado’s fine 2011 Lucerne account with Nina Stemme and Jonas Kaufmann, though equally insightful is Gardiner’s cracking 1996 account of Beethoven’s original Leonore on period instruments.
Of course, the composer has been a cornerstone of the Yellow Label since it made what was (very nearly) the first recording of a Beethoven symphony with the Berlin Phil under Arthur Nikisch back in 1913. It’s not surprising therefore that over the following century they captured a sizeable proportion of the world’s finest pianists in the sonatas. The decision about who to include playing what must have been agonising, but there’s not a dud among them and the names – Gilels, Arrau, Barenboim, Brendel, Pollini, Ashkenazy, Lupu et al – are a rollcall of the great and the good. There are some pleasant turn ups, however, with Kocsis, Freire and Perahia among them. There are two Diabellis from Brendel and Kovacevich and many a pleasing guest appearance in the WoOs including variations care of Pletnev, Uchida and Mustonen.
The same goes for chamber music, and so we get Argerich and Maisky in the cello sonatas, Mutter and Orkis in the violin sonatas, but also contributions from Kremer, Pires, and even the late Barry Tuckwell in the Horn Sonata. Many of the piano trios come from the patrician Beaux Arts’ set, but there’s a fabulous bonus Archduke from Previn, Mullova and Schiff and the string trios are very nicely done by Mutter, Giuranna and Rostropovich.
One entire string quartet cycle is divided between the Emersons and the Takács, with a second set of the late quartets from the Hagen Quartet, all more than fine, if not vastly different in approach. The piano quartets (all WoO), the string and wind quintets and the two sextets are all fine works less often played and make an appealing makeweight to the chamber set.
One area that holds a fair few surprises is vocal music. Why we only ever hear An Die Ferne Geliebte when Beethoven wrote over 100 songs I’ll never know. Not every one is a masterpiece, but Fisher-Dieskau will convince you that it is if anyone can. And then there are the musical jokes, such as “In Praise of the Fat One” and no less than seven discs of folk song settings represented here by Malcolm Martineau’s complete survey from the 1990s with an exemplary line-up of British singers. They may have been bread-and-butter drudgery to Beethoven, but eight hours of them are oddly addictive.
The choral music is headed by two superb and contrasting versions of the Missa Solemnis: Karajan (1966) and Gardiner (1989). The latter also supplies a fine Mass in C, and then there are excellent accounts of Christ on the Mount of Olives with James King and Elizabeth Harwood, the two “Emperor” cantatas (under Thielemann), and the extremely rare Der Glorreiche Augenblick, an 1814 “Napoleonic” work that was not published until 1837.
For all that excellence, I do have one cavil. Both the recent Mozart and Bach Complete Editions took “period performance” as the bedrock upon which to rest their chosen recordings, supplementing with “traditional favourites” where necessary. Beethoven 2020 does the opposite, with scanty examples of the piano music on fortepiano (three of the concertos with Gardiner and Robert Levin, and a paltry three sonatas with Steven Lubin) and even less when it comes to gut-based strings (a solitary quartet played by the modern day Schuppanzigh-Quartett, though admittedly played on a set of instruments owned by Beethoven). Given that the most exciting concerto performances I’ve heard this year have been on fortepiano (Bezuidenhout and Brautigam), perhaps it’s time for DG to record some period sets ready for the 200th anniversary of the great man’s death in 2027?
Until then, please don’t let that put you off investigating this set, which really does represent a new benchmark and pulls together many of the greatest Beethoven recordings of all time.
Beethoven: The New Complete Edition is out now on Deutsche Grammophon