Let me say right of the bat that this set as a whole is worth every penny, and Decca has created an interesting set, at the very least. If you were wondering, this set in no way is the "Ultimate Beethoven", that would have to include several works not seen here. But if you're looking for ways to compliment your current collection, this works splendidly.
First, we have Haitink's early Royal Concertgebouw recordings of Beethoven's fifth and sixth symphonies. These are stronger performances than I expected, and was the only disc that I questioned, as Solti and others are perhaps stronger. The fifth was urgent, swift, and very pleasing. Haitink's middle-of-the-road sixth features some fabulous playing, but impresses me a little less.
Second is Solti's highly acclaimed Ninth. Typically powerful, strong playing makes the third movement less than perfect, but any chance to hear the Chicago Symphony Chorus is worth it, and the soloists are excellent. That disc costs nearly 12 dollars alone, so you could almost consider the rest of the set a bonus.
The third disc features the fourth and fifth piano concertos, Vladimir Ashkenazy is the soloist, with Zubin Mehta at the helm. His set with Solti is better known by most, and frankly what collectors were probably expecting. Still, Mehta does a good job, and has the Vienna Philharmonic to help him. While I find other versions more exciting, I really was pleased to hear these works played so beautifully, and the fourth is particularly charming.
The fourth disc is for my money the highlight of the set. Beethoven's Violin concerto is a masterpiece, and kudos to Decca for not using, say the Triple Concerto instead. Once again, Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw are on fine form, and Henryk Szeryng makes a commanding soloist. This account doesn't appear to be in print, so it's good to see it back without having to travel the world for it. The violin romances are gorgeous, and make an apt coupling.
Finally, Claudio Arrau's masterful accounts of three famous piano sonatas (yes, the "Moonlight" is there), end the set in a more poetic, introspective mood than I might have expected. Arrau was a fantastic Beethoven player, and the choice of this disc, of all five possibly the most familiar, makes perfect sense.
All five discs are reasonably priced anywhere you find them. I have found Decca's Ultimate Series to be well chosen (with some very unusual choices), and all of them that I have seen feature some classic recordings. This set, however, has a few of them, and each of the five discs has something special to offer. If you are new to Beethoven, or think you've heard it all, try this set. You'll enjoy it!
Copyright © 2012, Brian Wigman