Well, I did it. After checking the library and the free recordings, I decided to plunk $8 and download the Complete Beethoven Symphonies, conducted by Josef Krips with the London Symphony. I am downloading them now from Amazon. I am giving it as a Christmas present for my nephew.
My reference for classical music recordings is Third Ear’s Classical Music guide, edited by Alexander J. Morin. It gives a rundown of all performances of Beethoven symphonies. Surprisingly, it recommends a boxed set conducted by Cluytens, and in fact there is general agreement that this is one of the best performances. I would have been happy to spend the extra $15 to upgrade to Cluytens. (the preview audio did sound fantastic). But wait! It’s out of stock (and shipped only from Germany). And it’s a CD – gosh, remember those?
The Cluytens is on EMI Classics, so there’s really no excuse not to make it available digitally. If I bought a CD version, I’d have to wait for it (probably a week). Plus, I’d have to rip it (which is 20-30 minutes). I was planning to give it as a Christmas present to my nephew. That’s in two days! Is it that important to delay a present by a week just to get a certain version? To be fair, Third Ear did like the Krips version (though it didn’t regard as one of the great recordings). In fact, some people on Amazon liked the Krips version, including a person who compiled an annotated list of the best Beethoven recordings. There is no shame in going for the Krips version. So I did.
(Alas, I now learn that the Cluytens is available as a CD set from B&N for $22)
But I have to wonder: why isn’t every classical recording available as an mp3 nowadays? Hey, EMI I was ready to pay $25 for a historic CD recording, but you weren’t ready or willing to take my money! I realize there are rights issues and transfer issues. But surely it has dawned on someone at EMI that every single person under the age of 40 now listens to nothing but MP3s! I realize that the time and effort to hire a 16 year old kid to rip 5 CDs into high quality mp3s and upload them onto Amazon is probably considerable. 10 years from now, when teenagers aren’t protesting about global warming, they will be marveling at the fact that their ancestors could not download and listen to any piece of music simply by pressing a button.
In my teenage years I was pretty obsessive about classical music, and I pretty much abandoned it after college. One reason was the price of that hobby. I could never afford the recordings which aficionados were always raving about! Later, I abandoned classical music (temporarily) and just checked CDs out of the city library. But I noticed that even the library’s classical collection was diminishing. Sure, they always had a version of a particular piece, but your odds of obtaining a well-known recording through the library system were next to nil. Later, I became a fan of free downloads and creative commons music. That essentially meant forgetting about classical music (I wasn’t rich enough to belong in their club!) Also, I noticed that the used market for classical CDs remained pricey. The only positive development was that lots of East European orchestras I’d never heard of were making recordings at budget prices. Most of the recording I heard sounded fine, but who in God’s name were these people?
Recently, I’ve been wanting to buy classical music…if only to help me do my work. I require classical or intellectual music to do my work. And I really miss the unavailability of low cost recordings. From internet archives I find interesting recordings:
- Klemperer 1950s recording of Beethoven #9. (That’s really the only recording with decent sound quality I could download for free). (The free Weingartner version is available for free download and it is exciting, but the sound quality issues are hard to ignore).
- the 1939 Toscanini/NBC Symphony of Beethoven #5 recording definitely has sound quality issues (it’s from a 78 rpm), but it’s an exciting and idiosyncratic version. Highly recommended! Here is same conductor with Symphony #8 and a Heifetz/Toscanini pairing of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.
- other notable downloads from Internet Archive: Stokowski playing Dvorak’s New World (1934, 78 rpm), and BBC Philharmonic Complete Beethoven Symphonies . Unfortunately, with the BBC recordings, each symphony is a single mp3 with a BBC announcer doing an introduction. Helpful, but I wish the Internet Archive people could have shaved the introduction off. (But I recommend BBC’s Symphony #3; quite wonderful!).
If I had to buy different digital versions of the Beethoven symphonies, I would probably go for Toscanini’s Complete Beethoven Symphonies for $30 or Bernstein’s 9 Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic for $35. With Toscanini you are definitely compromising on sound quality butit’s still exciting.
(Update: I am still listening to the BBC version of #3; it’s subtle and fascinating! )
Finally, I probably could pick from a dozen of fussy comments about Beethoven collections. Here is my fave:
All Beethoven symphonic cycles are eventually disappointing because no one conductor can approach perfection in every one of these works. Bernstein succeeds in symphonies 2 and 7 in this set, but that’s really it, the rest are average or worse. Karajan’s early 1960’s cycle is the one to go for if you desperately need a complete set by one conductor. It’s not perfect but the most satisfactory available.
For individual symphonies, try Karajan in symphony 1, Karajan, Szell or Bernstein in symphony 2. For the Eroica, Karajan’s digital version if you want drama and power or Klemperer from 1961 if you like it slow or Toscanini from the good old days. Szell and Furtwangler are also great. Symphony 4 goes to either Szell or Karajan, Symphony 5 to Giulini, Furtwangler, Karajan and Kleiber. The Pastoral goes to Karl Bohm or Bruno Walter. The 7th goes to God knows who, I haven’t found a perfect Seventh, yet! Try Thielemann, Furtwangler or Bernstein or Karajan’s first DG cycle. Go with Karajan’s digital version for the 8th symphony. Last but not least, Solti, 1972 for the the Choral Symphony or Gunter Wand on RCA, as well as Karajan, 62, 77 and Furtwangler, 51, 42, all great.
(For the record, I checked the listing for Symphony #9 in Third Ear; it goes on for 1 1/2 pages, with summary verdicts of about 75 different recordings. And it does not even mention Solti or Wand and equivocates about Karajan and begrudgingly accepts that the Furtwangler version “does present a very interesting philosophical argument about how to approach it”. So much for artistic consensus).
Update: I like the Krips version; outstanding sound quality, but the overall tone is stately and mysterious and subdued. It’s not as lively as I would have liked – I would describe the interpretation as “faithful” and “cerebral” and acoustically full but never exciting. Still, I think Krips’ approach matches the quiet intricacies of Eroica very well.
Dec 2011 Update. I am happy to report that some of the Cluytens performances by Beethoven are available for sale at Amazon.com. Specifically, #2, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9, each for the reasonable $3.56. I listened to the Symphony #9 and it is every bit as fresh and lively as promised. I’ll be listening to the rest over the next few months — I’m disappointed that 3 and 7 are still unavailable though. Really, how hard would it have been to digitalize these as well?