This is the first of
three DVDs devoted to Michal Gielen’s
live Beethoven cycle. Gielen’s recordings
of Mahler, with imaginative couplings
on Hänssler, have gathered mixed
reviews but there was no doubting their
thought-provoking nature. If Gielen’s
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
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
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 Gielen’s 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.
actual conducting is for the musicians
rather than the public. Undemonstrative,
each movement has real purpose.
Similar traits characterise
Gielen’s reading if the Second. The
‘slow’ 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 ‘fast’ 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 Beethoven’s
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 Gielen’s
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 Beethoven’s massive structure,
so that climaxes claim their rightful
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 Beethven’s persona.
The ‘full-stop’ 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 Gielen’s fierce
intellect will have no problems with
outlining the structure of Beethoven’s
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 Gielen’s Beethoven
cycle on DVD.