My Favorite Beethoven

We’re doing the musical equivalent of changing horses in mid-stream today on NEPR, making a switch the midst of our annual broadcast of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies, starting with Thursday morning’s broacast of the Symphony No. 3, “Eroica.”  While the performances of the first two Symphonies by the Royal Flemish Philharmonic and conductor Philippe Herreweghe sounded perfectly lovely, upon further listening, their gentle, soft-grained renditions fail to capture either the dramatic heights and profound depths of the later Symphonies.  So instead, we’re switching to performances that we’ve played piecemeal over the last several years, but never complete.  It’s time to do so.  For while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this or any recorded cycle of the Beethoven is the greatest ever, I don’t mind saying that among the Beethoven Symphony cycles of the digital age, this is my favorite.

Neither conductor nor ensemble possess anything near the maximum in star power, not that that should dissuade anyone from giving them a fair hearing.  The Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra (since merged with the Radio Philharmonic of Kaiserslautern as the German Radio Philharmonic) is one of the fine German regional orchestras that CD collectors have come to know and love over the years for recordings by such great conductors as Sergiu Celibidache and Günter Wand.  We can also include on that list Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the now-nonegenarian Polish-American conductor-composer best known in the U.S. for his tenure as director of the Minneapolis Symphony, aka Minnesota Orchestra.  In fact, Maestro Skrowaczewski, still very vigorous in his old age, has conducted the musicians of the locked-out Minnesota in performances to support their cause over the last, very sad year.

Well, with so many Beethoven sets by bigger-named conductors and orchestras on the market, why spend so much time with these relatively obscure performances?  To answer that question, all you have to do is listen.  Regardless of which symphony you’re hearing, and which earlier version may be your favorite, you cannot fail to be impressed by the edge-of-the-seat urgency of the Saarbrücken, the essential rightness of its tone — no standard-issue cookie-cutter playing here — even with its occasional rough edges, not necessarily an unwelcome quality for Beethoven.   Some of the Symphonies were recorded in concert performance, others not.  But all come across as live, spur-of-the moment music-making, never something to take for granted in the sometimes somnolent scene of orchestra concerts.

As to the conducting, whatever sense of critical detachment I might possess fails me here.  Without once attempting to score musicological  points or call attention to himself, Maestro Skrowaczewski nonetheless invests every bar, every gesture, with purpose and personality.  The focus is never on the conductor’s ego, always on the musicians and the music.  But the resulting performances are the furthest thing from anonymous.  How can this seeming paradox be true?  Again — listen!  

While CDs on the Oehms Classics label might not by readily available at your local mall store, by the way, you’re in luck.  For these performances can easily and affordably be purchased and downloaded, either complete or symphony-by-symphony, from The Classical Shop or Presto Classical.  Just type “Skrowacewski Beethoven” into the seach window, and go for it.

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