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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphonies: No. 1 in C, Op. 21 (1800) [24í32]; No. 2 in D, Op. 36 (1802) [32í18]; No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55, ĎEroicaí (1803) [44í28].
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Michael Gielen.
Rec. Live in the Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden in February 2000 (Nos. 1 and 3) and in the Konzerthaus, Freiburg, in June 1998 (No. 2). DDD
EURO ARTS 2050609 [110í00]

This is the first of three DVDs devoted to Michal Gielenís live Beethoven cycle. Gielenís recordings of Mahler, with imaginative couplings on Hänssler, have gathered mixed reviews but there was no doubting their thought-provoking nature. If Gielenís Beethoven is less controversial than his Mahler, it remains fresh and individual. Interestingly Gielen uses a score as he conducts, and is often seen to have his eyes fixed downwards thereon. Yet aurally we hear interpretations of the greatest care.

The symphonies are presented chronologically. The first comes from Baden-Baden in 2000. It begins in robust fashion - little hint of fps in the woodwind chords - leading to a busy, determined allegro. Camera angles can shift rather too much (funny to see the oboist scratch his nose!), a shame in an interpretation that is more unified than its visual presentation. Nevertheless we get to savour the fact that the timpanist plays with hard sticks, giving the really incisive attack this music warrants.

The Andante cantabile is as requested by the composer con moto. Too fast to be courtly, it is more often cheeky, seeming here to look forward to the comedic aspects of the Eighth Symphony.

A pity the Menuetto (really, of course, a Scherzo) is just not quite tight enough. A more world-class orchestra would surely have carried out Gielenís intentions better. Yet there is lovely rustic, well-balanced woodwind in the Trio. Gielen moves straight into the final movement, an effective dramatic gesture and a finale here full of the celebrational exuberance.

Commendably, Gielenís actual conducting is for the musicians rather than the public. Undemonstrative, each movement has real purpose.

Similar traits characterise Gielenís reading if the Second. The Ďslowí introduction again does not hang around; similarly the Allegro con brio is not lethargic. Again, the exposition repeat is present and correct. This is dramatic Beethoven, full of life.

If the slow movement could be that bit more playful, and indeed more suave at times, it flows nicely. These are middle-of-the-road tempi; never once does a Ďfastí speed sound forced, as it can so easily with Norrington on Hänssler - with the SWR Stuttgart orchestra. . The sweet, Pastoral-like Trio (the slow movement similarly included pre-echoes of the Sixth) is an effective touch, while the finale seems more like Beethovenís Nozze di Figaro than I have ever heard it. Exciting to hear the Second played with such conviction.

So, across a quantum leap in symphonic thought and to the Eroica. No messing around here. The punchy opening attests to Gielenís intent. Taken at a brisk tempo, the camera-work can be quite dizzying as Beethoven tosses melodic fragments around and the cameras play catch-me. Gielen conducts one-in-a-bar almost throughout, yet ensemble is miraculously taut here. Again, the exposition repeat is honoured as, indeed, is Beethovenís massive structure, so that climaxes claim their rightful weight.

The Funeral March is fairly fast, but is nevertheless remarkably expressive. Unlike many conductors, Gielen does not bend the tempo at climactic points, so they appear in the context of an unstoppable march. The strings exhibit a good depth of tone.

The lively Scherzo is almost bucolic; Gielen seems attracted to this side of Beethvenís persona. The Ďfull-stopí before the Trio is questionable (it is too interruptive), and is made all the more so in the light of the excellence of the three horns. Gielen saves any true explosions for the very end of the movement, presumably attempting to make an emotive link between this and the gesture that opens the finale.

A man of Gielenís fierce intellect will have no problems with outlining the structure of Beethovenís finale. This is an exhilarating performance that builds towards an imposing horn statement in the slower tempo.

There is rather a long gap between the very final chords of the symphony and the applause. Rather inexplicable, too. This is a fine reading that deserves hearing.

An excellent and often stimulating start to Gielenís Beethoven cycle on DVD.

Colin Clarke

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