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Top 10 Beethoven CDs and MP3s for your Classical Music Collection

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is probably the most admired composer, both among musicians and audiences, who ever lived. Beethoven is usually grouped with Mozart and Haydn as one of the three great composers of the Classical style. His music is traditionally divided into three periods. In the first period, roughly 1790-1802, the music shows grace and charm and resembles closely the styles of Mozart and Haydn. Beginning around 1803 with the "Eroica" Symphony, Beethoven's music becomes much more dramatic. Great works such as the Fifth Symphony, the Middle String Quartets, and the Violin Concerto arose in this period. From about 1812 to the end of his life, when Beethoven was almost completely deaf, he composed sublime and intensely personal works, such as the Ninth Symphony and the Late String Quartets, that were not always easy for his audiences to grasp at a first hearing.

Beethoven grew up in a musical family in Bonn, where his talents were recognized from a very early age. In 1792 he left for Vienna to study composition with Haydn, and he spent the rest of his life in that city. In his twenties he aborbed the influences of Mozart and Haydn, mastered their Viennese style. Just as he was beginning to make a name for himself in, Beethoven realized that he was starting to lose his hearing, and he composed his greatest and most revolutionary works while struggling with this burden. By the time he turned fifty Beethoven was known throughout Europe as the greatest living composer. Beethoven's influence on later music was tremendous; his works paved the way for the Romantic era, and all of the later composers of the nineteenth century felt themselves toiling in Beethoven's shadow. His music -- piano, chamber, and orchestral -- remains immensely popular today, and is still the standard by which great performers, ensembles, and conductors are judged.

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1 Symphony No. 5 -- Carlos Kleiber
The most famous piece of classical music ever written. Review...

2 "Pathétique" and "Moonlight" Piano Sonatas -- Alfred Brendel
Beethoven's more intimate medium of expression. Review...
3 "Razumovsky" String Quartets -- Takács String Quartet
Revolutionary chamber works. Review...

4 Symphony No. 9, "Choral" -- Herbert von Karajan
An inspiring journey, culminating in the "Ode to Joy." Review...

5 Violin Concerto -- Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Eugen Jochum
Inaugurating the era of the Romantic concerto. Review...

6 Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor" -- Stephen Kovacevich, Sir Colin Davis
The king of piano concertos. Review...

7 Symphony No. 3, "Eroica" -- George Szell
A revolutionary symphony. Review...

8 "Spring" and "Kreutzer" Violin Sonatas -- Itzhak Perlman, Vladimir Ashkenazy
The young composer at his most jubilant. Review...

9 Late String Quartets -- Takács String Quartet
Quartets that break all the rules. Review...

10 Late Piano Sonatas -- Maurizio Pollini
Complex works that set a new standard. Review...

11 Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral" -- Karl Böhm
A musical painting of the countryside. Review...

12 "Archduke" Piano Trio -- Alexander Schneider, Pablo Casals, Eugene Istomin
A royal piece of chamber music. Review...

13 Cello Sonatas -- Mstislav Rostropovich, Sviatoslav Richter
A summary of Beethoven's musical development. Review...

14 Missa Solemnis -- John Eliot Gardner
Sublime sacred music. Review...


Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber, conductor

Beethoven's Fifth is perhaps the most famous piece of classical music ever written, and deservedly so. The famous opening four note motif serves as the thematic material for the whole first movement, and it reappears in the third and fourth movements to make the symphony into a unified whole rather than a collection of four individual movements. This unity is apparent in other respects as well: the stormy opening movement is in a dark minor key, and the mood gradually shifts through the middle two movements and culminates in a glorious brass fanfare that opens the finale. Carlos Kleiber's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic still stands as one of the all-time greats.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
Piano Sonatas No. 8 in C minor, "Pathétique"; No. 14 in C-sharp minor, "Moonlight"
Alfred Brendel, piano

While Beethoven's symphonies show outward storm and fire, the piano sonatas give us a more personal view of the composer. Beethoven composed his two most famous sonatas early in his career, when he was just making a name for himself in Vinna. The first movement of the "Moonlight" and the middle one of the "Pathétique" are so tender as to move the listener to tears. But the storm is not altogether missing; the "Pathétique" opening movement and the "Moonlight" finale contain some of Beethoven's most exciting music. Alfred Brendel gives a gripping performance on this two-disc set containing five other wonderful sonatas.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano
String Quartets Op. 59, Nos. 1-3, "Razumovsky"
Takács String Quartet

If Beethoven's symphonies revolutionized the realm of orchestral music, his string quartets did no less to change the nature of chamber music. The string quartets of Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven's immediate predecessors, grew out of tradition of the divertimento, music intended for diversion or amusement and often played in the background. On the other hand, these three quartets, from Beethoven's so-called "middle period," are very serious affairs that command the listener's full attention. They have often been said to be symphonies in miniature, for Beethoven is able to coax as much emotion and sonority from four players as he is from a full orchestra. This recording demonstrates why Takács Quartet have emerged as today's leading interpreters of the Beethoven quartets. The playing is profound and technically impeccable, and the Takács make these quartets still sound fresh even after dozens of listenings.

Similar works: Top 10 String Quartets
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, "Choral"
Gundula Janowitz, soprano; Hilde Rössl-Majdan, mezzo soprano; Waldemar Kmentt, tenor; Walter Berry, bass; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna Singverein, Herbert von Karajan, conductor

Beethoven's Ninth is justly famous for its setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" in its final movement, but what many people don't realize is that there are forty minutes of glorious music before the final movement even begins. The first movement begins in the musical equivalent of a mist, which gradually lifts to reveal the full splendor of the orchestra. The astute listener can even hear a preview of the "Ode to Joy" melody in the second theme. The second movement features a catchy melody that is passed back and forth between the different instruments, while the third movement contains some of Beethoven's most exquisite slow music. As the fourth movement begins, the orchestra plays brief reprises of the first three movements, only to reject them in favor of the famous "Ode to Joy" theme. Beethoven was a master of conveying emotion in his music; by the end of the Ode, you will truly believe that "All creatures drink of joy."

For a first taste of Beethoven's Ninth, we recommend either Herbert von Karajan's 1962 recording (with Janowitz, Rössl-Majdan, Kmentt, Berry, pictured above), in which the orchestra conveys a rare intensity and depth of feeling, or his 1977 version (with Tomina-Sintow, Baltsa, Schreier, van Dam), in which the singing is noticeably better but the orchestra doesn't quite reach the same level. Another fine choice is Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1951 recording at the Bayreuth Festival (with Schwarzkopf, Höngen, Hopf, Edelmann), which is arguably the finest performance on record, but is limited somewhat by the recording technology of fifty years ago. Finally, for those who wish to hear the Ninth as (we think) the composer intended, John Eliot Gardiner conducts a compelling performance (with Orgonasova, von Otter, Rolfe Johnson, Cachemaille) using instruments and performance techniques of Beethoven's time.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies, Top 10 Choral
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
Wolfgang Schneiderhan, violin; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Eugen Jochum, conductor

Beethoven's Violin Concerto (the only one he composed) has been a staple of the violin repertoire almost since it was written. The concerto brought a new level of expressiveness to the violin, and all the great Romantic composers (Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and others) followed in Beethoven's footsteps by writing concertos of their own. Wolfgang Schneiderhan is not nearly as well-known as some other violinists, but his performance makes all the rest sound like mere fiddlers.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, "Emperor"
Stephen Kovacevich, piano; London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, conductor

Beethoven's fifth and last piano concerto was given the nickname "Emperor" not by the composer but by early listeners who deemed it worthy of ruling over all other concertos. This is a middle-period work, and throughout the work Beethoven breaks the molds set by his predecessors. We see this trend from the very beginning, when the soloist has long trills and runs in the first few minutes; earlier composers, and even Beethoven himself a few years before, would have introduced the piano only after the orchestra had stated the movement's main themes. This two-for-one set features Stephen Kovacevich in the "Emperor" as well as an all-star cast of soloists in Beethoven's remarkable Triple Concerto.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, "Eroica"
Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell, conductor

Beethoven's "Heroic" third symphony was originally dedicated to a contemporary revolutionary in a different field -- Napoleon Bonaparte. However, after Napoleon crowned himself emperor Beethoven stratched out the dedication and instead gave the symphony the title by which we know it today. Indeed, the symphony is one of heroic proportions. The first movement alone is nearly as long as most Mozart symphonies. The second movement is a tragic funeral march and is followed by a sprightly minuet. The finale is a set of variations that takes a simple theme and develops it in ever grander gestures. George Szell's performance is still electrifying more than forty years after it was recorded.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
Violin Sonatas No. 5, Op. 24, "Spring"; No. 9, Op. 47, "Kreutzer"
Itzhak Perlman, violin; Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano

The "Spring" sonata was not given that name by Beethoven, but its sweetly melodious nature justifies the title. The "Kreutzer" sonata was dedicated to the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer but was actually premiered by the English violinist George Bridgetower. Beethoven barely completed the sonata in time for the first performance, Bridgetower had to play the difficult piece virtually at sight. Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy had a bit more rehearsal than Bridgetower, but their playing has the spontaneity of that first performance.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
String Quartets, Opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, 135
Takács String Quartet

Beethoven's last five quartets were among the last works he completed before his death, and all are masterpieces containing some of Beethoven's most powerful music. The music is very dense and personal, and Beethoven breaks free of nearly all contemporary conventions of harmony and form. The influence of the contrapuntal style of Bach is noticeable throughout these works, especially in the opening movement of Op. 131 and in the "Grosse Fuge" finale to Op. 130 (which was deemed so difficult that it had to be published separately as Op. 133). The Takács Quartet give deeply moving performances of these masterpieces; for a less expensive alternative, it's hard to go wrong with the Emerson Quartet, who display tremendous virtuosity if not quite the same depth of feeling.

Similar works: Top 10 String Quartets
Piano Sonatas Nos. 28-32, Opp. 101, 106 ("Hammerklavier"), 109-111
Maurizio Pollini, piano

Beethoven's final piano sonatas test the expressive limits of the piano and the pianist. As with the late quartets, these are highly charged personal works, containing violent outbursts and moments of exquisite tenderness. The influence of Bach is again visible. Maurizio Pollini's performance is truly remarkable.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano Music
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, "Pastoral"
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Karl Böhm, conductor

Beethoven's Sixth Symphony provides a great contrast with the stormy Fifth, written in the same year. In this peaceful work, Beethoven uses the orchestra to evoke images of the countryside. In the various movements one hears birds singing, villagers dancing, a thunderstorm bursting, and finally a shepherd's song of thanks after the storm. Karl Böhm's recording highlights the human side of the music -- the "merry gathering of country folk" sounds happy and spontaneous, and there is a palpable sense of relief after the thunderstorm. If you're looking for a more dramatic approach, try Bruno Walter's celebrated version, which conveys the music's grandeur in every note.

Similar works: Top 10 Symphonies
Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 97, "Archduke"
Alexander Schneider, violin; Pablo Casals, cello; Eugene Istomin, piano

Unlike the "Emperor" piano concerto, Beethoven's "Archduke" piano trio recieved its nickname from its dedicatee. Archduke Rudolph of Austria was a great patron of Beethoven as well as his pupil, and Beethoven dedicated numerous works to him throughout his life. This trio, the last that Beethoven wrote, demonstrates the composer's supreme mastery of the chamber ensemble and is indeed more of an emperor among piano trios than an archduke. This 1951 recording features the legendary cellist Pablo Casals.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Cello Sonatas Nos. 1-2, Op. 5; No. 3, Op. 69; Nos. 4-5, Op. 102
Mstislav Rostropovich, cello; Sviatoslav Richter, piano

Beethoven's works for cello and piano provide a microcosm of his development as a composer. The first two are early works, exhibiting Beethoven's absorption of the Viennese style of Haydn and Mozart. The third is a middle-period work in which Beethoven experiments with musical structures, while the last two are grandly conceived works composed as Beethoven was moving towards his later style. This bargain CD featuring Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter contains some of the finest performances ever to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Missa Solemnis in D major, Op. 123
Charlotte Margiono, soprano; Catherine Robbin, mezzo soprano; William Kendall, tenor; Alastair Miles, bass; English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

The Missa Solemnis was written at the same time as the ninth symphony, and both works are expressions of God's grandeur, though in very different ways. The symphony proclaims joy to the multitudes, while the mass takes a more sublime and personal approach. John Eliot Gardiner's recording won Gramophone's Record of the Year award in 1991 and has become the definitive recording of this difficult work.

Similar works: Top 10 Choral