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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op.21 (1800) recorded on October 8th 1988
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.36 (1801) recorded on December 11th 1988
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 55, Eroica (1803) recorded on October 23rd 1983
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat, Op. 60 (1806) recorded on October 9th 1988
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67 (1807) recorded on September 20th 1987
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68, Pastoral (1808), recorded December 15th 1986
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op.92 (1812) recorded on September 20th 1987
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op.93 (1812) recorded on October 22nd – 23rd 1983
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op.125, Choral (1824) recorded October 18th & 19th 1985
Leonore Overture No.3, Op. 72 (1806) recorded December 15th 1986
Carol Vaness (soprano), Janice Taylor, (alto) Siegfried Jerusalem, (tenor), Robert Lloyd (bass)
Cleveland Chorus and Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnanyi.
Recordings all made in the Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, U.S.A.
6 discs, available as either a set or separately. DDD
TELARC CD 80200 [6CDs: 358.12]

 

Telarc’s re-release of their 1980s Beethoven cycle is very welcome, although there are some drawbacks which may deter the collector from investing in the set. Last time it was released it was on six separate discs, as here, or as a five disc set sold at a discounted price. This time, we are informed that the six disc set is the only release. Here is the first drawback – much of the competition is now normally available on five, usually making for a reduction in the price.

With CD playing times such as they are today, there is absolutely no excuse for not compressing these onto five discs, even allowing for the overture. If the performances were superior to all the competition, there might be a tenuous excuse, but not here, I am afraid.

Having despatched the cost issue, there is also a slight concern about the performances. These cannot be faulted as they are technically almost perfect, with the orchestral tone being superbly caught by the engineers. Speeds are almost universally on the fast side giving a very lively atmosphere. What I miss however is the sense of struggle. With Dohnanyi, the orchestra is so competent and tonally perfect that the works seem almost effortless, as though there is no sturm und drang; merely a pleasant passage though the most revolutionary set of symphonies in the repertoire.

I am more than prepared to accept that others may not react in the same way as I have, in which case they will have a perfectly played set of Beethoven Symphonies in superb sound quality.

No. 1 and No. 2, coupled on CD-80187, are lively and beautifully played, complete with first movement repeats, which is important for some. Indeed, most of the first movement repeats are included in this set; finicky collectors can rest assured. Tonal blending of the various sections of the orchestra is absolutely beyond criticism. I can imagine some listeners being bowled over by the standards of the playing, and the ability of the engineers to serve up such a wonderful feast. As these first two symphonies do not represent the depth of feeling of some of the others, my concerns outlined earlier are unimportant.

The Eroica, CD-80090, with a disc entirely to itself taking only 48 minutes is not at all good value for money. There is plenty of space available for the First Symphony which is how other sets normally couple these works. It is quite rapidly played with the listener appreciating once again the standard of the playing, but there is absolutely no sense of struggle. Dohnanyi has so trained his band that there are no hurdles in this symphony too difficult, even in a very minor way.

The third disc in the set, CD-80198, couples Symphonies 4 and 8. The features of interpretation mentioned earlier are clearly evident once more. The quiet start to No. 4 is exquisitely played, but with very little sense of mystery. Another very fine disc.

Disc four CD-80145-2, couples the 5th and 7th Symphonies. These are what you would expect after what has gone before, except that there is none of the accurate and bitingly direct phrasing one gets with Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic. As one might expect however the recording is every bit as good. As part of a cycle, this is quite acceptable unless you want the absolute best. You only need to revert to Kleiber if you are buying these discs separately. That version is worth every penny of the extra cost.

We then move on CD-80145, to a fairly fast, but extremely accurate performance of the Pastoral. This includes the first movement repeat and is coupled with the third Leonora Overture. This offers an exciting rendition of the peasant’s dance. The storm is convincingly violent. The last movement is fairly rapid, but not without a very touching tenderness right at the end of the work. The only problem is that this tenderness appears artificial and not coming from the music itself. The overture is very well played, but at 56 minutes the disc is again poor value.

The last disc in the cycle, CD-80120 contains the Choral without any coupling. The Leonora No. 3 would have fitted in easily here. This is an excellent performance and for this disc, the various sections of the choral movement are individually banded; useful if you wish to play "bits". The soloists are all first rate with the soprano and the bass being singled out for particular commendation. The choir acquit themselves magnificently and this performance brings the series to a very satisfying climax.

In summary, we have in this overpriced set, perhaps the best played of all complete Beethoven cycles. It offers superior sound quality, played by a superbly efficient and sumptuous sounding orchestra in a believable acoustic. Is it recommendable? Certainly it is if you don’t mind paying over the odds and provided you are prepared to settle for a very cold and dispassionate take on the Beethoven symphonies.


John Phillips

 

 



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