Beethoven Symphonies - best perf + sonics on CD

My CD's of Beethoven's symphonies were all issued in the late 80's or early 90's and sound flat and two-dimensional, with a back-of-the-house perspective. Vinyl is more dynamic but I can't tolerate the surface noise during the quiet passages. So, fellow A'gon members, I'm looking for your suggestions for the best sounding (good tone, big dynamics, front row perspective) and most thrilling performances of Beethoven symphonies on redbook CD. Thanks in advance for your suggestions.
Ag insider logo xs@2xcrazee01
For a modern set on redbook cd, given your stated preference for thrilling performances and overall good sonics, what comes to mind first is Paavo Jarvii's RCA Red Seal cycle. It 's SACD/Redbook hybrid. In places he is very Toscanini like in tempo. The sixth from this set is my favorite all time recording of Beethoven 6.
Vanska's recordings on Bis have superior sonics, but don't thrill. Very worthwhile recordings and I listen to them a lot, but given your criteria, I think you should begin sampling the Jarvi recordings and see what you think.
I understand what you mean when you compare CD to LP. There may be more to it, though. Can you list all of your equipment?
For a complete set: Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner.

My favorite singles:
Symphonie No. 9, Wiener Philharmoniker / Karl Bohm with Norman,Domingo,Fassbaender,Berry

Symphony Nos. 5 & 7, Wiener Philharmoniker / Carlos Kleiber

I have the Jarvi and Vanska and they are excellent also.

The Barenboim/Staatskapelle Berlin cycle has outstanding sonics, but slower, sensitive, and powerful ala Furtwängler. Large orchestra with violins split left and right, double bass on the left. Recorded 1999 on Warner.
Similar to the Gardiner is Harnoncourt's cycle. Faster, powerful, smaller orchestra and recorded by Teldec.
I agree Bohm/vienna for single CDs.
Thanks for your responses. Glad to see there's some consensus.

Regarding Zd's request for an equipment list:

VPI Scoutmaster/Signature arm/Super Platter/SDS/Lyra Kleos
EAR 834P phono stage (with Singerman mods.)
Audible Illusions L2B line stage
Lector CDP 7 CD player
Rives PARC
Gallo Ref. 3.5 speakers on Bright Star Audio stands
Spectron Musician III w/all upgrades
Shunyata power conditioning
It is surprising how much consensus there is. There is so much here I agree with in what has been written. The Furtwangler-Barenboim comparison is one I have drawn myself on occasion. I have not heard Harnocourt's cycle, but am familiar with his style and would fully expect similarity to the Gardiner cycle.
Reflecting on this thread has taken me way back. My first love was William Steinberg's vinyl recordings of the cycle with the Pittsburgh. Next, I found the recordings of his mentor, Arturo Toscanini. Now, I find myself drawn to the Jarvi recordings, which I find recapture the spirit of that interpretive tradition.
I rarely listen to Furtwangler, Barenboim, Walter, etc. even though I find much of value there.
We have been remiss Crazee01, in that we have not asked what older recordings of the LvB symphonies that you find pleasing. Understanding more of what you have liked in the past will be the best guide in recommending what you may find "thrilling" in the current catalogue.
I've been very impressed with what I've heard of the Vanska set. It's certainly the best sounding Beethoven I've heard.
Brownsfan, in response, let me explain that I've been a life-long music lover, but growing up I came from the jazz, R&B side of music. When I entered the workforce in the mid-80's, my company sublet office space to a division of Polydor records, and their employees could buy CD's (all the new rage!) for $5 each. They offered me the opportunity, and with the help of a colleague, I bought what I was advised was basic repertoire classical music, more because I couldn't pass up a good deal than any real love for the music. In the ensuing years, I listened a bit to Mozart and Beethoven and others more as background music, but wasn't really captivated. Fairly recently, someone bought me, as a gift, the CD's of Prof. Greenberg's course on classical music which, to my surprise, I found fascinating. Suddenly, I had an historical context for this music and went back to listening to those old CD's more intently and with greater understanding and appreciation. Then I happened upon a DVD of Abbado and the Berliner Philharmonic of a Beethoven symphony, which I played on my home theater system (different from my two channel set up). For some reason, watching the performance and hearing the orchestra on the more powerful and dynamic (but not as good sounding) home theater, I could appreciate the delicacy, beauty and immense power of the orchestra. I bought the entire Abbado/Berliner cycle on DVD, which I really enjoy. But I can't recreate that same sonic excitement in my two channel room with the old CD's. So I don't really have any experience with multiple recordings of the Beethoven symphonies to know what I find pleasing. It's funny, because buying multiple recordings of the same music is so foreign to me. From a jazz perspective, even if I love the tune "Satin Doll," I wouldn't go out and buy various recordings of that same song to hear different versions. You buy Stan Getz records because you love Stan Getz, and it almost doesn't matter what songs he's playing. I guess that's because jazz is "player's music" whereas classical is "composer's music." In any event, I'm excited to find better sounding recordings of Beethoven and continue my exploration of this (to me) new musical world.
To expand on Lowrider57's comments.

There are distinct styles at play here. Furtwangler in many ways set the standard in the 40's and 50's with a slow and majestic performance. Barenboim in is that mode. On the other side are those who more recently play the symphonies as they believe they were originally played, often at a faster pace and with original phrasings and other techniques and sometimes with traditional instruments. That would be Gardiner and Harnoncourt for example. Klieber was more traditional, but at a much faster pace that Furtwangler, although the sonics on the Klieber are not up to modern standards. Many people think Bohm just got it right, with a good mix of tempo and expression. Although his recordings are from the 70's, the sonics are very good for the time. It is good to recognize these styles in determining what appeals to you.

Fortunately, several of these sets like Barenboim, Gardiner, Haroncourt, are now available for $25 or less so it is pretty easy to get several and compare. Even the Bohm on separate CDs are only about $45. Berenboim's versions with his new West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is also available from HDTracks in 24 bit 96 KHz for people looking for high rez versions.
Crazee, I also like Greensburg's lectures. He has quite a few different lecture sets and they are all worthwhile in my opinion.

As you can see from the above, the LvB symphonies are a place where one can do a good bit of sampling without spending a ton of money. Based on your clarifying comments and your original critera, I still think Parvi on RCA may be your best bet. You will find these to have generally fast tempi and good dynamics. That is the sort of approach that generally falls into the "thrilling" as opposed to "profound" category. You can also pick up the Vanska set pretty inexpensively now. Later, you might well want to gain exposure to some of the older classics, from Furtwangler, Toscanini, Bohm, etc.
"I still think Parvi on RCA may be your best bet."

.....if u mean Jarvi, I would agree for Crazee01 to start with that.
Again, thank you all for sharing your knowledge and experience. I ordered a Jarvi CD (Symphonies 3 and 8) from Amazon and will go from there.
Sorry it took so long but I didn't see the post right away. The reason I asked for a list of your components is that in your description of the problem, I felt it was likely that your CD player could be at fault as well. Things like dynamic contrast and great imaging are easy for vinyl. Its not the same for CD. It can be done but its much more difficult (and expensive).

I don't have a lot of experience listening to the Lector that you own. I do know, however, that it is very well regarded by many people I've spoken to, and from several other positive comments on it, as well. In light of that, my best guess would be your concern is with the recordings and not the CD player. If you have easy access to other equipment, it wouldn't hurt to compare it to different CD players, just to see.

One last thing. I have to single out Rok2id. I've read several of her (or his) comments on music and recordings, and find them to be outstanding. Always good advice. Just don't let him talk you into buying $4000 worth of cables.
Sorry for showing up late. The Paavo Jarvi Beethoven cycle is on 180 gram vinyl from the Impex lable. I bought the cycle on CD while it was being released since Mr. Jarvi was finishing his tenure here in Cincinnati along the same time. I'm surprised that no one made mention of Klemperer or Von Karajan. Admittedly, I'm a bit more fond of the Brahms Symphonies, too bad there are only four.
That's a good comment. It is surprising about Karajan not being mentioned. The first complete set of LvB I purchased was his 1977 set with the Berliners on DG. An LP Box set.

He was considered one of the best, if not the best. I think he, along with Bernstein, were among the first 'Celeb' conductors.

He was good, The berliners were good and the DG engineers have a great reputation. But I seldom listen to him. I have the 1963 set on CD, and a SACD of the 1977 9th.
I still prefer the Bohm with Vienna. Vienna has the best strings since Philadelphia. Some symphony recordings let you hear within the orch. Some seem like a wall of sound. At least thats the way I hear it. I like the within.

The OP was looking for top notch recordings with good performances. For me, the analog DG recordings of the Berliner made in the Jesus Christus Kirche were good, but when they changed the recording venue and went to digital recordings forget it. Not so good. I found von Karajan's recordings made in the 60's very worthwhile, but those that came later were pretty forgetable.
I have to disagree about classical music being "composer's music"--I'd rather hear the Guarneri Quartet playing anything than most other quartets playing the finest the repertoire has to offer. As a matter of fact, it's with the "top shelf" pieces (which is a somewhat subjective category, of course) that I insist on hearing a "top shelf" performance.
So, as with so many things, "YMMV."
It seems to be the trend however that orchestras are getting away from the golden era style of sixty string players with a silky sound, a sound which separated the Vienna from the Chicago, etc... However, Beethoven never saw such large orchestras during his life time.
I adore those days when Furtwangler, Klemperer, Böhm, Mengleberg and Von Karajan set standards with legendary performances but now I'm looking forward towards hearing more historically minded performances. Especially given the fact that instrument makers are making period instruments that incorporate advancements which erratic the problems inherent in those original antiques.
I like the band 'modern times_1800' and I'm hoping that they will expand their repertoire. They are an excellent example of a period ensemble. Some conductors/ ensembles make better decisions about performance practice than do others. I wasn't happy with Harnoncourt's Beethoven cycle and thought the historical trumpets to be disconnected from the modern orchestra. I'm glad to see that the Juilliard school has a historical performance department, this is encouraging.
Any insights about what's to come, Beethoven or otherwise?
Sorry, I mean't 'eradicate the problems inherent in those original antiques'.

Tostadosunidos, I believe that most people would agree that expectations are higher whenever hearing a well known masterpiece though of course that's not to say that new compositions don't also demand a high level of performance. Either way, a sense of 'danger' is essential. This comes through in a quality piece despite its age or classification.
I am in the camp of having more than one version - not only because of different overall styles and sonics, but also because of the almost unavoidable variability in quality of performance and sonics among the nine symphonies regardless of overall (ie. average) quality.
I think I have too many Beethoven sets. Five. :)

The last two complete sets I purchased were:
La Chambre Philharmonique / Krivine on period instruments

London Symphony Orch / Haitink SACD

I got the Krivine because they played period instruments and used a much smaller orch. It's growing on me. it may end up being my favorite. Less bombastic. After all it took years for Bohm to be the favorite. The first time I played bohm I thought something was wrong with the CD. It was soooo slow. Back it went on the shelf for several years. Now I appreciate slow. And he has the greatest vocals.

I got the Haitink so I could have a complete set on SACD. They were both well reviewed in the British audio / music press. I don't consider it exceptional.

I also have two 9ths by Furtwangler. The 1951 at Bayreuth and 1954 in Lucerne (sacd) I cannot get past the sound quality on either. When it comes to performance vs sound quality, I go with sound quality every time.


Not to beat any dead horses (maybe it's too late for that) but Sergiu Celibidache was a masterful maestro and his zen like tempos have earned him somewhat of a cult like following. I highly recommend the Brahms, all 4 discs are recorded live with the Münchner Philharmoniker on EMI. I find the sonic quality to be superb and the German Requiem is included on one of the sets. I believe that Sergiu Celibidache and the Munich on EMI will be my next choice for Beethoven.

'You can't do anything other than let it happen. You just let it evolve. You don't do anything yourself. All you do is make sure that nothing disturbs this wonderful creation in any way. You are extremely active and at the same time extremely passive. You don't do anything; you just let it evolve.'

Sergiu Celibidache

For records, the mono Toscanini box set on RCA Shaded Dog is still worth digging up now and again.
"The OP was looking for top notch recordings with good performances. For me, the analog DG recordings of the Berliner made in the Jesus Christus Kirche were good, but when they changed the recording venue and went to digital recordings forget it. Not so good. I found von Karajan's recordings made in the 60's very worthwhile, but those that came later were pretty forgetable."

I agree that the 60s cycle is superb, but sound problems plague the later cycles. What bothers me about DG recordings (CDs) is the period from late 70s thru the 80s when the engineers were experimenting with close-miking techniques, plus they did not adapt well to digital in the 80s. Seems like the Philips and Decca engineers were able to get it right.
DG had to correct many of the Karajan recordings.
Lowrider, What happened at DG is hard to understand. DG made terrific recordings then suddenly forgot what music sounded like. The JCK is by all accounts a terrific recording venue. I have a recent recording by Angela Hewitt recorded there and it is very nice. I heard the DG engineers were not happy about being forced to record in the then new Berlin concert hall instead of the JCK. Trying to make the switch to digital at more or less the same time made for a train wreck I guess.
Brownsfan...that's very interesting and may account for the change in sound during that period. I just listened to Karajan 1963 and though lacking the detail of modern recordings, the overall balance is excellent. The later Beethoven and Schumann cycles suffer from a change in their recording technique. Sounds like over-miking and a lack of the venue ambiance. I know Karajan was very displeased and they were remixed and remastered.
And then there was DGs transition to digital...terrible. That's why I can't recommend the later Beethoven cycle as far as having good sonics.
BTW, I still order DG vinyl made in Germany/Holland and it is so well crafted.
This discussion really brings back the memories Lowrider. As a poor student, I cut my teeth on William Steinberg's Pittsburgh Beethoven set. 9 symphonies, $10. Later when I had a little more money I began to accumulate the von Karajan set from the 60's. I will never forget years later, hearing the digital recording of the 7th how terribly disappointed I was.
Either of you please, Lowrider and/or Brownsfan; what about the current DG recordings in these German cookie cutter concert halls. The hall in Köln is the same as in Berlin is the same as in Hamburg,'s just Walt Disney. Do you suppose that the aforementioned transition was a necessary evil for DG?
I've also been to the Theatre Champ Elysee and the acoustics in that hall are lovely but recordings and concerts don't often take place in these types of venues anymore. Paris has its beautiful Paris Opera but typically the opera plays in the modern facility at Place Bastille. Regardless, excellent recordings are had from almost anywhere today, would you not agree?
It seems to me like DG artists at some point were the victims of a race to keep up with technological advancements, which at the end of the day either meant maximizing dividends or reporting a loss. After all, it is primarily a business, Karajan or no Karajan.
Regarding the 80's digital DG Karajan set--I'm curious to know if any of you find them tolerable on today's less harsh-sounding machines. I know I found them hard to listen to back when they came out, but much better-sounding now.
Goofyfoot, Its been a long time. My memory is good, but--- I can't swear to any of this. What I remember having heard at the time would be in agreement with your "necessary evil" scenario. What I remember is that once construction of the Berliner Philharmonie was complete, there was an enormous amount of pressure applied to the Philharmoniker to shift recordings to that venue. I don't know who was applying the pressure. The facility was completed in 1963. This change in venue was not something DG desired, as I recall.
I suppose referring to early digital as a necessary evil is as apt a description as any.
I do think that excellent recordings can be made in most venues today, provided that you have a recording company that wants to make the effort. I'm not sure I can think of one decent recording in my collection made in the Barbican, so I think there is a limit to what competent engineering can overcome. I'd love to here a new recording made of the Clevelanders in the old Masonic Auditorium. Some of those were pretty special (at least to me).
Your point regarding viable economics is apt. The money has to work, unless you are fortunate enough to have someone underwrite.
Goofyfoot, I think the later and current DG CDs are excellent quality and the Berliner Philharmonie concert hall clearly has good sonics.
I do know that during the mid 70s to mid 80s, Bernstein
(in Vienna) and Karajan were making very different demands on the DG engineers and the result in both cases were recordings resulting in a different sound compared to other DG recordings. So I don't know what to make of that.
As far as DG moving into digital, you make a very compelling case. What is very interesting to me is that Philips and Teldec (Decca + Telefunken) their German competitors made far superior recordings.
Thanks to both responses. I remember when visiting Berlin, hearing negative comments concerning the venue changes for the Philharmoniker, however this alone should not have influenced DG to the degree that their quality had declined. The Teldec recordings are my favorite from the larger companies as there is a definite aesthetic that speaks of integrity to the finest detail. I'm still fond of the Harnoncourt Mozart recording on Teldec. But as I said earlier, sometimes it comes down to who's on the board of directors.
Tostadosunidos, good question. The Box set was remastered and the result was the Karajan Gold set. All 9 symphonies released as separates. Although slightly bright, they lack the harshness of early DG digital. With my tube CDP, they sound open, well balanced and with first rate performances. Karajan is in top form IMO.
I think with a good CD or DAC they are worth buying, in fact, I play them often.
Tostadosunidos, I will attempt to listen to the 4th and 7th tonight. Not only did I find the recording quality objectionable, I thought von Karajan fell way short of his previous effort. The 7th from the 60's was magical. The 80's version was nothing special. I may try and pick up reissues of the 9th and 3rd from the 60's. Those were the only ones I saw.
I have von Karajan on Columbia Microgroove though not Beethoven and DG mono vinyl also. I wonder to what extent he recorded on Columbia. It would be nice to see more attention given to his other, outside of the mainstream repertoire. I've found it hard to track down comprehensive lists of recordings from the 1940's and 1950's.
Brownsfan, I need to make a point, then ask a question. The 1980s performances are inferior to the 1963, but the Karajan Gold remasters are an improvement over that awful boxed-set, plus I am taking into consideration that Karajan is 80 years old. I find them worth listening to, but it's not a whole-hearted endorsement.
That said, I'll ask you if the 1960s cycle has been remastered for Redbook? There have been so many reissues, I am confused. I own the 1963 red and gold box-set and for me it is the greatest interpretation of Beethoven, however the record quality is only marginally acceptable.
Can you provide further info on better quality 1960s CDs?
Goofyfoot..there is a Karajan LvB cycle with the Philharmonia from 1950 on EMI.
Don't know much about it.
Lowrider, I don't own any HvK CD's from the 60's cycle. I had the vinyl back in the day. By the time the 80's rolled around, I was moving away from vinyl and the HvK's were so worn you could see through them.
I am thinking about buying whatever I can find from the 60's cycle on redbook. Last night, all I could find was the 3rd, 9th, and I think maybe the 5th. No mention of them being remastered. If DG remastered the 60's HvK's and reissued them I'd buy them in a New York minute.

You are correct about HvKs age. He was a great conductor. HvK, LvB, and I spent much time together.
Thanks Lowrider, I'll look into that set ASAP. In general I've found that I tire of repeated performances. Not to say that their aren't enough performances on recording but I've been listening more for various interpretations, spontaneity in the concert hall, etc.. Which is why I'm surprised that there is no mention of Otto Klemperer in this regard.
Nathan Milstein, in Christopher Nupen's DVD portrait (one of my best DVD's), mentions Klemperer as being one of the great conductors of the 20th century (Nathan Milstein also states that Firtwangler was the greatest conductor that he had ever worked with).
Sonic quality is important to a degree but given the option of listening to very early Horowitz or later Horowitz, I will opt for the remastered early recordings of the 1920's. However, seeing that I was born in 1962, my familiarity with the raisonne' of early classical recordings is severely limited. But thanks to website forums like this one, I have an opportunity to learn and discover.
Thank You!
Brownsfan, have u seen this 1963 set...

Reading the user reviews makes it even more confusing as to the sound quality. I see there are now some hybrid SACDs of the remixed 1963. I'll be looking into those. are most welcome. I have many DDD cycles of Beethoven; like you I am interested in the interpretation.
But now I explore the early conductors such as Klemperer, Kleiber, Furtwängler, but it's a crapshoot finding good quality CDs and some of the mono to stereo transfers are dreadful.
Lowrider and Brownsfan, I have a Furtwängler set on the Orfeo D' Or label that I want to recommend for these reasons;

A) The remastering was taken from the original source.
B) They are live performances from the Salzburg Festival 1949-1954 with the Vienna Philharmonic.
C) It contains 8 mono CD's.
D) Includes Beethoven Symphonies 3, 9, 8, the Große Fuge and Symphony 7

Lowrider, Thank you thank you thank you! Your link got me (eventually) to the sacd remasters of the 63 Karajan LvB, which I bought in a small fragment of a New York minute. Woohoo, this is fun. Shall we do Brahms next?
Are these the Japanese remasters found on the Acoustic Sounds website or are they DG remasters?
We could start with something familiar;
Tostadosunidos, I pulled out my old 1983 4th/7th pairing. It was not excessively bright on my ModWright Sony and not really unpleasant to listen to. But, my assessment remains fundamentally unchanged. This was disappointing, artistically, and of course, it is still 83 digital, even if it is better through the ModWright.

Goofyfoot, I bought the DG remaster.
Brownsfan, I'm glad u found it. I have too many cds on order right now so I'll have to wait on the Karajan.
If u are seriously looking for a Brahms cycle on CD, I suggest Giulini/VPO on Newton Classics 1991. His Brahms is slower and he reveals every nuance that, IMO, other conductors miss. Plus those Vienna strings are sublime.

I don't own a SACD, so I look for the best Redbook available.
Brownsfan, will you give us a report once it arrives? Spending $60.00 for a Japanese import seems a bit steep, I hope the DG copy will not disappoint.