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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Symphonies 1-9
+ Overtures: Egmont op.84; Leonore III op.72a; Fidelio op.72b; Coriolan op.62; Creatures of Prometheus op.43; Ruins of Athens op.113
Anna Tomowa-Sintow (soprano); Agnes Baltsa (mezzo); Peter Schreier (tenor); José van Dam (bass)
Wiener Singverein
Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Berlin, 1975-1977 (symphonies); Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, 1965/1969 (opp.62, 72a, 72b/43, 84, 113)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 7578 [6 CDs: 63:05 + 63:11 + 62:22 + 61:17 + 57:51 + 66:23]
 

 

 

 


Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Symphonies 1-9
Helena Doese (soprano); Marga Schiml (mezzo); Peter Schreier (tenor); Theo Adam (bass)
Rundfunkchor Leipzig; Chor der Staatsoper Dresden
Staatskapelle Dresden/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. St.Luke, Dresden, 1975-1980,
BERLIN CLASSICS 0184442BC [5 CDs: 76:52 + 72:25 + 78:55 + 69:06 + 72:18]
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Symphonies 1-9
Oksana Lesnichaya (soprano); Irina Romishevskaya (mezzo); Algis Janutas (tenor); Alfred Muff (bass)
Moscow Chamber Choir; Vesna Boys Choir
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of the Moscow Radio/Vladimir Fedoseyev
rec. live, Grand Hall, Moscow Conservatory, Moscow, January 2004 – October 2006
RELIEF CR991089 [5 CDs: 59:28 + 78:40 + 71:33 + 64:40 + 61:34]

Experience Classicsonline


Three Beethoven Symphony cycles all at once could be a case of masterpiece-overkill for the reviewer, but faced with Karajan (DG, Berlin Philharmonic, Karajan Symphony Edition) and Blomstedt (Berlin Classics, Staatskapelle Dresden), it turned out to be more joy than chore. Going through Fedoseyev’s cycle, so much up-front, was more a case of duty.
 
Karajan (Berlin 1975-77)
If Karajan’s 1963 set of Beethoven symphony recordings (recorded 1961-62 on DG) is generally hailed as one of the overall best cycles, Karajan-77 might in some ways be the better Karajan-Beethoven cycle – namely because it is more typical of Karajan and what he had achieved with the Berlin Philharmonic in the many years they were his orchestra. In the same way, the 1980s cycle might be considered as the exaggerated characteristic of everything that was questionable about Karajan’s particular approach – a trend toward homogeneity gone wrong, with edges first overstated, then smoothed over, and captured in sound worse than either of the predecessors.
 
Karajan-63 is individual, dynamic, conductor-driven, and – for its time – progressive. A comparison of the best (or at least most exciting) modern interpretations of the “Eroica” Symphony (Paavo Järvi/Bremen on RCA or Osmo Vänskä/Minnesota on BIS) with the Karajan’s 1963 version (available individually as part of the Karajan Master Recordings re-issues and as part of the SACD-remastered cycle) shows that, the ever-missing exposition repeats aside, Karajan created a stunning sound: modern then, timeless today.
 
Karajan-77 is a more collaborative effort with his orchestra, the detailed sound and clarity of his earlier Beethoven married to the homogenous orchestral sound that is said to have been his ideal. Although the timings are not very different from the earlier cycle (in the “Eroica” Karajan shaves off over two minutes from his previous account, [inadvertently?] coming close to Beethoven’s metronome markings), the symphonies often ‘feel’ a little bit more deliberate because the saturated, secure sound of the orchestra and recording remove any sense of instability, nervous energy.
 
Among the absolute highlights is the Seventh Symphony, and within the Seventh the Presto which is simply terrific, riveting – energy and weight used toward very propulsive ends which is taken right into the Allegro con brio. In addition to the nine symphonies, this cycle also includes Karajan’s 1960s recordings of the overtures to Egmont, Leonore III, Fidelio, Coriolan, Creatures of Prometheus and Ruins of Athens.
 
Notable, too, are the excellent liner-notes: three different essays, one in English, German, and French each – that don’t vaguely or generally discuss Beethoven or engage in undue hagiographic Karajan-worship, but poignantly, candidly discuss the specific recordings at hand. The set is available only in the UK it seems - and in the US as an import. What is available, however, is the “Karajan Symphony Edition”, undoubtedly the best deal among all the commemorative Karajan re-issues. Apart from this Beethoven cycle, it includes Karajan’s complete Brahms, Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky cycles, some Haydn, and late Mozart – 38 discs in total, offered at a ridiculously low $100 in the US. Consider the Haydn and Mozart anachronistic throw-ins to what are some of the finest standard repertoire symphony recordings available - Brahms, Bruckner, and Mendelssohn especially.
 
 
Blomstedt
The Blomstedt Beethoven cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden has been available in many different versions – for many years as a super-budget box when Brilliant Classics licensed the recordings. Elsewhere, I bemoaned that Brilliant chose the Kurt Masur/Leipzig recordings for their “Complete Beethoven” box, instead of them, but perhaps Brilliant’s licence had already run out and the rights gone back to Berlin Classics/Edel – the successor to the GDR’s “VEB Schallplatten” (“People Owned Company – Records”). It would make sense, because Berlin Classics has now issued these recordings themselves, in a neat slim cardboard box at just a little more than the price that Brilliant asked for theirs. It has higher production value thanks to a fine little booklet with good liner-notes and a short biography of Herbert Blomstedt in English and German, but no text for the last movement of the Ninth.
 
This Beethoven cycle is the epitome of everything that is good about “Kapellmeisterdom”. Significantly broader than Karajan’s (Blomstedt also ignores the exposition repeats), they are ‘old-Europe’ readings, steeped in the long tradition of the wonderful sounding Dresden Staatskapelle. Even if it sounds nonsensical, I find these very well recorded readings – made between 1975 and 1980 in Dresden’s St. Luke’s church – ‘spectacularly solid’ and even. There simply isn’t a weak spot in the lot – and while no single symphony might make anyone’s first choice, as a whole this is one of the ‘standard’ cycles to compete with the very best, more famous ones. By the way, I am trying to avoid the word “interpretation”, because it might insinuate the injection of overt personality on the part of Blomstedt, which is wholly absent in a way comparable to Günter Wand.
 
In the Seventh Symphony, Blomstedt doesn’t nearly reach the intensely driven, propulsive mood that Karajan does, but how glorious shineth its slow movement! The Fifth Symphony doesn’t start very alertly, but the immense power he packs into the work without any sense of exaggeration is terrific.
 
The long arch that reaches from the first to the last note in the Ninth Symphony keeps you gently smiling throughout even if you’ve listened to the work a couple too many times to still be astounded by its grandeur and original novelty. Peter Schreier and Theo Adam are ‘good enough’ and neither Helena Doese nor Marga Schiml leave room for many complaints.  Throughout the set, the star is the Dresden Staatskapelle, which sound marvelous. The only qualm about sound I have is the choir, which sounds slightly veiled, and Schreier who is less to my taste here than with Karajan a few years before.
 
Given the $27 price tag of the set on Brilliant, Berlin Classics’ asking price of $33 makes it no worse a deal, considering the somewhat increased production value. It is one of the finest ‘standard’ symphony sets and in its presentable, space-saving box ideal as an introduction to the symphonies – as good a first cycle as there are, without interpretive kinks leaving the listener unbiased for further exploration of more individual readings. Of its type and style of interpretation, the only modern cycle that competes is Barenboim’s (Warner) whose Beethoven of dark varnished oak is more individual, but equally rich and often as expansive.
 
 
Fedoseyev
The Vladimir Fedoseyev Beethoven on the small Relief label is an oddity, a label seemingly not even distributed in the US. The set’s unappealingness starts with the five low-grade digi-packs in a flimsy paper slipcase and culminates in a cover that’s ugly as sin - a bad cut-and-paste of Beethoven’s bust next to the Russian maestro’s head - itself stark proof how saving on a good graphic designer (because our secretary can do that, too) is the wrong idea. Just as the visual is part of eating, so it is of listening. Whether the product is Anna Netrebko or a box of Beethoven symphonies - think Abbado’s or Rattle’s nicely produced Berlin and Vienna cycles on DG and EMI, respectively - the packaging is a sales argument – and here it is one against the purchase of this cycle.
 
Some might think this is a shallow or insubstantial perspective. But I don’t claim that this matter is a question of whether the visual should be a factor in the purchase of an audio product, merely that it is. On we go.
 
These symphonies with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of the Moscow Radio (formerly known as the USSR State Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra or also Symphony Orchestra of All-Union Radio and Television) were recorded live in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, and there is plenty ambient noise. Lots of clapping, players talking (neither between movements, thankfully), coughing, page-turning and the like.
 
The liner-notes claim that Fedoseyev is the “most Russian among Russian conductors”, and perhaps, arguably the TSOMR is the most Russian orchestra, too. Those looking for a Russian cycle of Beethoven should probably look here (not Pletnev) – although I cannot honestly say that I know what one would be looking for in a ‘Russian’ LvB cycle, or whether this one particularly, notably offers such ‘Russianness’. If edge-of-the-seat playing - chaos just beneath the surface - is meant, then there isn’t more to be found here than in many other live cycles. The brass is not so typically bloated or strident (the liner-notes call it “husky”) as might be expected, nor the strings more voluminous - “full, vibrant, ‘red glow’, as ascribed to them by Urs Weber, author of those liner-notes - than any other large symphony orchestra.
 
What is audible are very unlovely woodwinds (3rd Symphony), imprecise strings, a boomy, not sprightly, 1st Symphony - with little Mozart nor particular spontaneity, despite Fedoseyev’s claim or aim to the opposite - and a children’s choir in the 9th Symphony for which the word “ghastly” might be too harsh a description… but “pretty” sure sounds different. There are good moments, too: the 7th sounds compelling so long as not compared to Karajan’s and there is a sense of excitement in the 5th that’s not undermined by scrappy playing. But overall, the interpretations are surprisingly ‘standard’ – and a standard of decades past, at that. No exposition repeats are taken, and the tempos are generally slower than Karajan’s, and subjectively slower, still, than the timings would indicate. For Fedoseyev-fans only, I’d say. It’s no competition for recent live cycles like Mackerras’s (Hyperion) or Abbado’s (DG, Rome).
 
Jens F Laurson
 

Comparative timing
Comparable, since none take the exposition repeats.

Symphony
Karajan
Blomstedt
Fedosseyev
1
23:01
27:14
24:35
2
30:11
36:32
33:08
3
47:41
49:29
45:29
4
31:55
35:43
33:15
5
29:52
37:15
28:56
6
38:10
41:30
34:41
7
33:05
42:19
34:21
8
24:28
26:36
24:27
9
66:38
72:18
67:14

 


 


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