By John J. Puccio
So why the Haitink set? Because in the symphonies themselves Maestro Haitink produces no losers and at least three outright winners. His Nos. 2, 3 and 4 have never been bettered, and his No. 5 is among the best on disc. Nos. 1, 6 and Manfred are good serviceable accounts. And then there are the short fill-ups, of which "The Storm" is a stunner. Most of the other pieces, like the 1812 and Romeo and Juliet overtures, recorded earlier than the symphonies, are not first-rate but adequate and stretch the set's value.
By comparison, the Jansons set costs more, includes fewer fillers, and has at least one questionable recording of the Second Symphony. Like Haitink, the Muti set comes at mid price, but it, too, includes fewer fillers and is less convincing in most of the works (although his Manfred and Fifth Symphonies are standouts). Markevitch has the advantage of coming on four discs at budget price, but the drawbacks are obvious: the set includes only the six numbered symphonies, two of which are split between two discs, and the 1960's sound is thinner and noisier than the competition. Still, Markevitch's interpretations of the first three symphonies in particular must be counted among the best available.
Probably the most useful advice I could give is for one to buy individual symphonies and short works disc by disc, choosing the best possible recordings by a variety of conductors. Unfortunately, Haitink, Muti, and Markevitch are currently available only in complete sets. So, I suggest buying the Haitink as core material and supplementing it with a few other individual discs by Jansons and Ashkenazy. Or check the used shops for deleted copies of single discs by Muti. But by all means check out Haitink. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: