WHILE Otmar Suitner is unhurriedly working his way through a cycle of the Beethoven symphonies in digital recordings for Denon, the first complete digital Beethoven set has recently been issued by EMI. The conductor is another East German, Kurt Sanderling, but the Orchestra is the Philharmonia of London. The eight-disc set, which includes the "Egmont," "Fidelio," "Coriolan" and "Prometheus" overtures as well as the nine symphonies, is so far available here only as a Brilly import (SLS 5239; cassettes TCC-SLS 5239), which is all to the good since it means first-class German pressings.
Sanderling is not terribly well known in our country. In the 1950s his name turned up on recordings with the Leningrad Philharmonic, and later he served as head of the Dresden State Orchestra. His Dresden recordings of the Brahms symphonies were highly praised in Europe and Japan, but never reached our shores. More recently he recorded the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies digitally for Denon with the Berlin Symphony, a lesser orchestra than Suitner's Berlin State Orchestra.
If the American public has known little of Sanderling, his Beethoven set should explain why his colleagues regard him so highly. The value of this set goes far beyond its merely being the first one in PCM: There is not a single performance in it that would not be a reasonable contender for top honors among all current recordings of the respective work.
To say that Sanderling never seeks to impose his own personality on the symphonies is not to say his readings are without character, but the character is what he finds in the scores rather than a gratuitous interpretive overlay. His broad tempos and utterly natural phrasing have evoked comparisons with Klemperer, but in truth Klemperer did not always achieve the dramatic momentum Sanderling does at similar speeds. And that similarity ought not to be exaggerated: Sanderling frequently takes wing in the specific movements in which Klemperer was stodgiest. The Philharmonia, also, plays for him as it has not sounded since those heady days of Karajan and Klemperer.
Repeats are taken generously but inconsistently: in the first movements of the "Eroica" and the Fifth, for example, but not in the latter work's finale or the first movement of the "Pastoral." The Second Symphony, so often dismissed as lightweight because it is not an "Eroica," emerges convincingly grander than heretofore acknowledged, yet with its warmth and wit intact. Among the other particular glories of this set are the sheer, uncontrived grandeur of the "Eroica," the Olympian lyricism of the Fourth, the warmhearted nobility of the "Pastoral," the exciting but never hectic drive in the Seventh.
The Ninth is the towering capstone one always hopes for, exalted by its very humanity and with every instrumental detail aglow. The only real disappointment in the entire set, however, occurs in the choral finale: both John Tomlinson, the bass, and Robert Tear, the tenor, are below standard here, though Sheila Armstrong, Linda Finnie and the Philharmonia Chorus give nothing but pleasure.
Among all current "integral" recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, Sanderling's is not only the best sounding but, I think, the most stimulating and satisfying. It is, in any event, too important for anyone who cares about this music to fail to hear.
The Fifth (with the "Coriolan" Overture) and a two-disc package of the Eighth and Ninth from Sanderling's big set are already available separately, and digital recordings of individual Beethoven symphonies continue to appear from various sources. Suitner has just added the Fifth to his Denon cycle (OF-7013-ND), and it's a highly competitive one.
Suitner has never gone in for the monumentalism, and here he takes some rather brisk tempos, producing a somewhat lighter effect than Sanderling. He also takes all possible repeats, in the scherzo as well as the outer movements, following a new edition of the score by Peter Guelke. The recording is richer than the earlier ones in this series, thanks to a new experimental microphone Denon has just developed. All in all, a most recommendable issue.
Brisker by far is Michael Gielen's "Eroica," his first recording as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (Vox Cum Laude D-VCL 9007; cassette VCS 9007). This must be the fastest "Eroica" ever recorded: Even though Gielen does include the first-movement repeat, the total timing is about 44 minutes. The febrile propulsiveness is intriguing, the orchestra plays splendidly, and the sound is rich and true.
There is no filler on the short second side of Gielen's "Eroica," but Enrique Batiz and the London Symphony Orchestra include a rousing "Egmont" Overture with their Seventh Symphony on Varese Sarabande VCDM 1000.160. It is a handsome, well-paced Seventh, though without the rugged intensity of Sanderling's or the sheer intoxication of Karajan's. Both Sanderling and Batiz take the Third Movement's Trio very deliberately; Sanderling achieves greater vitality in his finale without taking it faster. Batiz is polished and dependable here (and superbly recorded), but less persuasive than in his Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Falla recordings on this label.