Various Artists

The Best Beethoven

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Beethoven is a particularly difficult composer to reduce to the single-disc, best-of format, for his greatness resides less in themes and moments than in sweeping discourses that extend across large movement structures or even across several movements of a work. This said, you could do worse than the music on this budget-priced disc, which introduces full-length movements -- and, even better, a few movement pairs -- from various kinds of Beethoven pieces. The opening movement of the Symphony No. 5 in C minor is as good a place to start with Beethoven as any, and the inclusion of music from the Symphony No. 6 in F major, "Pastoral," suggests the two sides of Beethoven's symphonic personality. The "Moonlight" and "Pathétique" piano sonatas are famous works, and again it's hard to argue that the newcomer should start anywhere else. The performances are not by big names, but are drawn from the Vanguard label's generally consistent catalog from the 1950s through the '70s; the piano sonata recordings by Bruce Hungerford in particular have always been underrated. The problems here, however, are considerable. They begin with the sound, taken from old performances ranging over several decades and left to abrupt transitions that are likely to annoy even the commuter. The orchestral works have a strange, hollow sound. And, although most of the music is left whole, the random slicing-up of the Symphony No. 9 is pretty difficult to take. Altogether the disc is best avoided; there are other similar products that will give the newcomer a more rewarding experience.

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