Beethoven completed Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 (“Pastoral”) in 1808 writing most of it during the spring and summer, no doubt inspired by the countryside in his beloved Vienna. It is one of my favorite works by the composer. To honor the spirit of this symphony on this fine spring day some 200 years after its first performance, I thought I would put together a list of recordings of the 6th that are of merit along with notes on the performances, recordings, and pricing. As a bonus, I am also recommending a handful of Beethoven Symphony cycles that can be purchased at bargain basement prices for the budget minded listener.
Let me say at the outset that I purchased almost all of the recordings I reference as MP3 downloads through Amazon, not iTunes. That is to say that you might not find all of the music or the same prices on iTunes. For the “record”, I do have an iPhone and cannot purchase digital files from Amazon on it, although with an app, I believe it is possible. I did, however, create a wish list of albums to buy and then accessed the wish list on my PC laptop and purchased the titles on Amazon. You see, I am a Windows guy mostly and until very recently had never used an Apple anything of any kind.
After carefully listening to 7 complete Beethoven Symphony cycles from the ’50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and the ‘00s, AND comparing movements of No. 6 from 9 different recordings back to back; AND after reading countless on-line reviews of what critics and devoted listeners have said about them, here are my opinions and recommendations.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral)
The following are listed in descending order of preference:
9 Blomstedt – Staatskapelle Dresden $8.99 (1975-1980)
The Dresden State Orchestra under Blomstedt plays flawlessly but it is too bad the quality of the recording from Berlin Classics is not of the highest standards. The sound is murky and muddled when the strings unite and the full orchestra blends. The soloists seem to be playing muted instruments at times as if banished to the penalty box, to borrow a hockey phrase. The pace throughout is fairly even bordering on monotony and on the slow side, similar to Bohm and Szell. Beethoven seems to be walking with a cane taking care not to stumble on the rocks all around. The storm in the 4th movement is somewhat agitating and reminds me of rolling through a tortuous car wash with the windows down.
8 Leibowitz – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) $2.69 (1961)
Leibowitz leads the RPO on a fast-paced romp through nature. His tempi are nearly as brisk as the versions conducted by Krivine and Toscanini. The storm is a cyclonic burst that sounds artificial, almost comical or melodramatic, but fun I must confess. Like the Blomstedt recording, the orchestral soundscape here suffers from a lack of clarity at key moments. I have not heard the original 1961 pressing from Reader’s Digest from which these have been re-issued on The Genius of Beethoven: 100 Classical Masterpieces, but the sound here is slightly distant. However, considering that you get all 9 symphonies from a widely acclaimed set plus many other Beethoven classics for $2.69, what are you waiting for?
7 Morris – London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) .99 (1987)
Morris commands the orchestra confidently. The pacing seems on the brisk side in all the movements as if Beethoven were on a 45-minute power walk. The violins have a tinny, razor-like sound. This shrillness adds a rough edge to the performance that gives it character and spirit. However, the recording lacks the richness of sound that I prefer, rather like skim milk in coffee – it helps to cut the bitterness, but not enough to smooth it out. Movement No. IV is positively terrifying. Here, Beethoven takes cover from violent lightening strikes, and tornadic winds emerging with a disheveled look but otherwise undeterred.
6 Boult – Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra of London .99 (1957)
The Boult performance of the No. 6 found on The Beethoven Big Box has grown on me after repeated listens. The pacing is uneven and the dynamics give the piece an odd level of excitement. The British Boult evokes a startled Beethoven who might have encountered a bear or lost his way in Epping forest, pausing periodically to check his compass.
5 Tennstedt London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) 9.49 (1984)
The LPO under maestro Tennstedt deliver a solid performance of the “Pastoral.” Coupled with excellent sonics in a package that also includes Symphonies 3, and 8 plus the Overtures, this is a desirable recording. One caveat is that the storm in movement IV of the 6th is a letdown, frankly, with only a few thunderous timpani strikes. I would characterize it as a dreamy thunderstorm that produced a torrential downpour for a few seconds after which a dazed Beethoven wakes up to ask what just happened.
4 Toscanini – NBC Symphony Orchestra $29.99 (1952)
I bought the renowned ’50’s Beethoven cycle on used vinyl for $1 at a Public Library book sale in Warner, New Hampshire some 10 years or so ago. The vinyl was in “decent” condition so to preserve it, I converted the records to MP3 files. The sound is pretty rough because of all the pops, scratches, and skips, not to mention the original lackluster mono RCA recording. It’s hard to get past the limitations of the recording, but if one can, the rewards are the glorious historical performances of the NBC Symphony Orchestra passionately guided and inspired by one of the greatest conductors of all time.
3 Szell – The Cleveland Orchestra $6.99 (’60s)
Szell’s version of No. 6 is almost as good as Bohm’s. Perhaps his tempi are a bit slower and somewhat plodding and mechanical like a fine tuned march at times, but the Cleveland Orchestra play magnificently throughout. The instruments are not as present in the soundscape as in the DG recording of Bohm and the VPO, but the sonics are clean and silky. If you want to calm your nerves, Szell may be all the medicine you need. Even the 4th Movement is serene, never menacing, just a quick and proper no-frills thunderstorm. At $6.99 U.S. for all 9 Symphonies, brilliantly played, this is the bargain box of the century. One caution, as some reviewers have pointed out, the 9th is alleged to be a hybrid – starting off with Szell and ending with another conductor and choir. I haven’t verified this yet, but even if true, it should be no reason to shy away from the set. The complete Beethoven cycle of Szell on Sony with the full 9th, would run you $30 U.S. Is the 9th worth 23 bucks?
2 Krivine – Le Chambre Philarmonique $11.97 (2009)
If you like period instruments, this recording is the one for you. The tempi are faster than most, making one wonder whether they were speeded up as a result of a recording glitch; actually, the brisk pace feels quite natural. The sound is crisp and clean. The storm in Movement IV sounds like a twister rolling through the countryside uprooting trees and bushes in its path before petering out. This bargain price collection of the 9 symphonies was recorded live in 2009 making it the newest and freshest among the group surveyed and highly recommended.
1 Bohm – Wiener Philharmoniker (VPO) $9.49 (1971)
This one is the gold standard. I should point out that I already had the CD in my collection, so I did my own rip. I wanted to hear the MP3 format so that I could fairly compare the recording with the other selections reviewed, all or most of which I ONLY own digitally. Bohm’s interpretation feels the most realistic. Nothing is rushed or forced. The tempos just seem right. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO) sounds passionate, yet controlled. The instruments blend beautifully and shine when individually highlighted. The sound quality of the recording is simply outstanding. At 9.49 for the digital download, it is not the best bargain among the group reviewed, but it IS the one you want if you only could have one recording of No. 6.
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