In classical music, much is often made of the "curse of the nine". As the curse goes, you write nine symphonies, then you drop dead. While a number of great composers have written ultimate, "Ninth" symphonies, most of them don't really live up to the curse. Mahler wrote ten numbered symphonies, Bruckner eleven, and Schubert really only wrote eight, including his famous one that he didn't finish.
But two who meet the math requirement are Beethoven, of course, and Dvořák. I recently picked up sets of all nine symphonies by both of these composers.
For the Dvořák, I was faced with a choice of a few different sets available. I ended up getting the same set that I have on vinyl record, those recorded by Istvan Kertesz and the LSO. I went with this old standby because it was the first - Kertesz recorded all nine of these in a time when most conductors were only doing 7, 8, and 9. I respect that a lot. The recordings are from the early 1960's, but they still sound great and have a lot of exitement.
And having them on CD gives me the chance to really appreciate all nine. 7-9 ned no introduction, they are widely played and over played. 4-6 are starting to get their due. 5 and 6 I had always loved, and having number 4 on CD gave me the opportunity to listen to it more, and I can see it's strengths. Likewise, of the first three, I had always been a big fan of 2 & 3, but now the convenience of the CD medium gave me the chance to appreciate the first symphony. It is a testament to Dvořák's melodic gift that all nine of these contain memorable tunes. In the earliest of them, he has not yet mastered the technique for developing his ideas, but his inate gifts are still obvious.
There are also some overtures included in the set, but I was disappointed to see that the Hussite Overture and Othello were not included. Kertesz made fine recordings of these Dvořák masterworks, but I will have to be content with vinyl for now.
Turning now to Beethoven, there are dozens of sets available of his nine, but I had recently heard about a revolutionary new cycle recorded by David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra. They are performed on modern instruments, but with a new Jonathan Del Mar edition of the score, published by Barenreiter, that unveiled a number of corrections (according to Del Mar) that had gone unnoticed for 200 years.
Whatever the corrections may be, and some are listed in the booklet, this set is like a breath of fresh air. It's not just because Zinman takes them all real fast (and he does take them all at a quick pace), but there is a newfound clarity here. I hear more winds and brass, and I hear even moments of improvisation, for example at the famous oboe cadenza in the first movement of the Fifth (a similar moment occurs in the first movement of the Seventh). These Zurich musicians - and they are a multinational lot - play in a 19th century style, and they are not afraid to shake it up a little.
I can give two examples of places where Zinman and editor Del Mar give us a new view of Beethoven. In the trio of the minuet in the Eighth Symphony, there is a counterpoint line played by the cellos. In the new edition, it is played by a solo cello, which makes the part stand out more, than when it was played by the whole section. In the Ninth, he inserts a general pause right before bar 747 in the finale. Just to give us an alternate view, the CD contains both alternate endings with and without the pause. I had to look up the spot in the score, to be sure of what he was talking about, and after all that I don't think it is a big deal. But David Zinman does, so good for him. So many Beethoven sets, recorded with large late 19th century romantic orchestras, sound the same. This one is different.
This is a fine set of the nine symphonies, available on a budget label for about $20, so it is a fine compliment to any other set you may own. Recommended.