Beethoven’s Symphonies: Which Recordings?

My regular readers know I like to branch out from food and post on other areas of interest to me with some regularity. But it’s been a while since I’ve written on one of my favorite side-topics – classical music. In keeping with the theme of my last couple such posts, in which I recommended recordings for the symphonies of Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich and Sibelius, I’m going to address the nine Beethoven symphonies today.

I started listening to classical music while in college and spent a good deal of time focusing on several of the Beethoven symphonies before giving significant attention to other composers. As a body of work, his nine symphonies are like Shakespeare’s dramas or Michelangelo’s frescoes; the measuring stick for all who composed orchestral music for well over a century after his death.

The first classical concert I attended – in 1985 – was an all-Beethoven program that included the fifth symphony. That was also the first piece of which I purchased a recording – on cassette. 

Based on my experience, I would say that anyone looking to explore classical music could do a lot worse than starting with Beethoven and his symphonies. In fact, I had beginners to his music at least partially in mind while compiling this list.

With one exception, the lead recommendation for all nine symphonies is a stereo recording, although some of them are from early in the stereo era. But beneath each of those, I provide alternative recommendations, many of which are older mono recordings led by legendary conductors whose ideas on how these symphonies should be performed are out of fashion in the modern concert hall.

During the last couple decades of the twentieth century, the Historically Informed Performance (H.I.P.) movement began to take hold. Conductors started to place increasing importance on following the metronome markings Beethoven included with his scores, which led to faster tempos. Initially, H.I.P. style Beethoven was generally performed on period instruments that sound different than the modern ones used by 20th and 21st century full-scale orchestras. But an increasing number of conductors who work with those modern orchestras gradually began to adopt H.I.P. principles – less or no vibrato and orchestras that are scaled down in size to be closer to what Beethoven had in mind when he composed these works – until it became the norm. Even conductors who came of age in the pre-H.I.P. days – Haitink, Abbado, Muti – moved in a H.I.P. direction.

While I sometimes find H.I.P. Beethoven refreshing for a change of pace, my preference for most of the symphonies is for them to be performed the way they were during the bulk of the twentieth century – by large orchestras with a fuller sound and at least some vibrato. That is less the case for the first two symphonies, which were composed before Beethoven’s composing style had fully matured into what we think of today.

I’ve long believed that it’s best to learn a piece by listening to a recording that is close to middle-of-the-road from an interpretive standpoint. It should also be in at least pretty good sound. But once you’ve learned a symphony, as was the case with me, you may find you prefer some of the more distinctive mono recordings I’ll link to. I also include a handful of H.I.P. recordings, either for comparison sake or, in the case of the first two symphonies, because that style is better suited to the music.

Symphony No. 1

*Riccardo Chailly conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

While Beethoven was beginning to make his distinctive voice heard by the time he composed his first two symphonies, they lend themselves to a H.I.P. approach to a greater degree than do most of their successors. The recorded set of the symphonies by Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is one of the best such cycles in good sound and with a historically informed approach, albeit on modern instruments. 

For a less H.I.P. approach and a fuller sounding orchestra, try the classic recording by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra: 

Symphony No. 2

*Riccardo Chailly conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

See Symphony No. 1 above.

Herbert Blomstedt and the Staatskapelle Dresden provide a more full-bodied recording worth checking out for comparison-sake: 

Symphony No. 3 

Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic

Bernstein’s tempos are relatively moderate, but this is a tremendously energetic performance that is ideal for beginners to the work.

There are perhaps more great recordings of this symphony than any of the other nine. I don’t want to inundate you, but here are a handful of the best. They have varying tempos and interpretive approaches. See which you like best. I’ll start with my favorite Beethoven conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, who I profiled last year:

Furtwangler conducts the Berlin Philharmonic: 

Arturo Toscanini conducts the NBC Symphony: 

Erich Kleiber conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam: 

Otto Klemperer conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra: 

Herman Scherchen conducts the Vienna State Opera Orchestra: 

Willem Mengelberg conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam: 

**Jordi Savall conducts Les Concert Des Nations: 

Symphony No. 4

Carlos Kleiber conducts the Bavarian State Orchestra

The legendary Carlos Kleiber – Erich’s son – specialized in conducting a handful of pieces repeatedly during a career that featured relatively infrequent appearances on the concert stage. Among those were Beethoven’s fourth, fifth and seventh symphonies. 

This live performance by Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic is one-of-a-kind. I can’t imagine there is a modern conductor would dare attempt to approach it style-wise:  

*And for something 180 degrees away from the Furtwangler performance, here is one by David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra that takes a H.I.P. approach with a modern orchestra:

Symphony No. 5

Herbert von Karajan conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (1962)

Karajan, who succeeded Furtwangler as the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, recorded four complete Beethoven symphony cycles in his long career. The most popular of those is likely the one he made in the early 60s, from which this classic recording is taken.

As is the case with most of the nine symphonies, there are a handful of available Furtwangler recordings and live performances to choose from. Both Kleibers and Otto Klemperer also left classic recordings of this work. The Gardiner is one of the best of the modern H.I.P. efforts.

Furtwangler conducts the Berlin Philharmonic: 

Erich Kleiber conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam: 

Carlos Kleiber conducts the Vienna Philharmonic: 

Klemperer conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra: 

**John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique: 

Symphony No. 6

Karl Böhm conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

This is another symphony which has been beautifully recorded many times. But I don’t think any other recording gets it right in every respect to the extent that this one by Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic does.

Here are a few other classic recordings of this work:

Bruno Walter conducts the Columbia Symphony Orchestra: 

Fritz Reiner conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: 

Furtwängler conducts the Berlin Philharmonic: 

Klemperer conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra: 

Herman Scherchen conducts the Vienna State Opera Orchestra: 

Symphony No. 7

Carlos Kleiber conducts the Bavarian State Orchestra 

Carlos Kleiber generally paired Beethoven’s fourth and seventh symphonies in concert. Here is one of several tremendous live recordings of the latter that he left us.

Two classic and one more recent alternatives:

Furtwangler conducts the Berlin Philharmonic: 

Toscanini conducts the New York Philharmonic: 

Daniel Barenboim conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin: 

Symphony No. 8

Herman Scherchen conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

This one is not a stereo recording, but it’s from late in the mono era and is such a clear-cut first choice for me, that I felt compelled to pick it as my main recommendation for this symphony. While Scherchen wouldn’t be described as H.I.P., he was one of the early conductors to used fast tempos that approached Beethoven’s metronome markings.

A couple other mono classics:

Ferenc Fricsay conducts the Berlin Philharmonic: 

Toscanini conducts the NBC Symphony: 

Symphony No. 9

Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Everything fits perfectly into place in this recording by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and the Vienna Philharmonic. 

Furtwangler just about owns this symphony for me, but he is too interpretively extreme – in addition to the sound issues that come with most of his recorded performances – for me to have picked him for my lead recommendation. Among several classic live recordings he left, my favorite is this one with the Berlin Philharmonic: 

Here are a few more classic recordings of the ninth. Like Scherchen, Leibowitz was another of the early conductors to pay attention to Beethoven’s fast tempo markings:

Fricsay conducts the Berlin Philharmonic: 

Klemperer conducts the Philharmonia: 

Karajan conducts the Berlin Philharmonic: 

René Leibowitz conducts the Royal Philharmonic: 

I enjoyed doing my small part to keep the flickering flame of Western Civilization alive by putting this list together and hope it’s of value to at least a few of you. I’ll probably be back with a similar post on the Brahms symphonies at some point. In the meantime, I expect my next post to be back on more familiar ground – food. 

* = H.I.P. recording by a modern orchestra

** = H.I.P. recording by an orchestra using period instruments.

Published by BZ Maestro

I live outside of Philadelphia and have been food-obsessed for as long as I can remember. After toying with the idea of starting a blog for a fairly long time, the extinction of a food-themed message board that I frequented for years prompted me to finally take action. Thank you for taking the time to check out what I've been up to - and eating. If you've enjoyed what you have read and seen, please consider clicking the "like" button and signing up as a follower.

11 thoughts on “Beethoven’s Symphonies: Which Recordings?

  1. I have to say that in general, and in most cases, I really hate the HIP movement. Except for the faster tempos. I can’t stand being told to play without vibrato. If you get an entire section of violins playing without vibrato, the sound, in my opinion, is basically intolerable. We were once forced by yet another “genius” conductor to play the Mendelssohn Reformation symphony without vibrato. 🤮 I do appreciate the faster tempos, but I’m not sure what that has to do with the HIP movement, because Toscanini was playing with faster tempos long before the movement started. As was Solti. Although Solti’s tempos weren’t always blazingly fast in Beethoven, like they were sometimes in Mahler. As a comparison, Sotlit’s Mahler 7th recording is 12 minutes shorter than the performance we did in 2015 with Haitink, and I loved both of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great commentary, David. I would be happier if the H.I.P. movement were limited to period ensembles and didn’t cross over into modern, large-scale orchestras to the extent that it has over the past couple decades. I almost cringe when I see a small seating arrangement before a Beethoven symphony performance. I know what’s coming.


      1. We’ve always played a few of the symphonies with reduced string sections, generally 1, 2, 4, 6, and 8. Although 6 and 8 generally reduced by one stand (to 8 cellos) and 1, 2, 4 (I think) to 3 stands (6 cellos). For 49 years now.


        1. I should have been more precise with that last comment. I expect it with the first two and find it suitable to 4 and 8 as well. I like a fuller string section especially for 3, 5, 7 and 9; what can be described as his heftier or more serious mature symphonies.


          1. I’ve never played with a reduced section for 3, 5, 7, or 9. Actually, that’s not true. We once, years ago, had a reduced section for the 5th, but I think that was mostly because of illnesses.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: