This is the second volume in Thielemann’s Beethoven symphony
cycle, which is available in both Blu-Ray and standard DVD formats.
In my review of the first volume, which contained Symphonies
4, 5 and 6, I noted that Thielemann’s highly individual approach
would provoke controversy. The same holds true here: clearly,
the conductor has worked out his view of each work to the minutest
detail, inserting numerous tempo shifts, employing dynamics
of all grades - and usually very subtly, with nothing jarring
or abrupt - and drawing out the greatest precision from the
Vienna players. Thielemann always conducts with a view to the
work’s overall architecture, not just to momentary effect.
What is crucial here is that Thielemann does not attempt to
impart a mature sense or unwarranted angst to the youthful first
two Beethoven symphonies, as some conductors erroneously have
in the past. These two works are given spirited performances
and Thielemann clearly understands the big step Beethoven took
with the Second Symphony, treating it a bit more seriously but
not seeing it quite reaching the depth attained in the Eroica
or the symphonies that followed. In both the First and Second
symphonies, there is a bit less variance in dynamic levels and
less tempo shifting than in the Eroica Symphony and the Overtures.
Thielemann delivers a bracing account of the opening movement
of the First, and while the mood is light and joyful there is
also a muscular character to the music here, noticeable in the
conductor’s deft accenting and the manner he builds momentum.
The ensuing Andante cantabile is charming and light, with subtly
nuanced dynamics and many often neglected but significant details
emerging. The brief Menuetto is brisk and colorful, and the
finale moves from an opening yawn (Adagio) to pure joy and energy
(Allegro molto e vivace). Again, the dynamics are well conceived
and the spirited playing of the orchestra is impressive. This
is one of the finest accounts of the First, at least in recent
memory, and perhaps in the last several decades.
Thielemann’s Second features an opening movement whose slow
introduction is filled with tension and hints of darkness. The
exposition (Allegro con brio) is sunny and energetic, but again
muscular and brimming with detail. The ensuing Larghetto is
lovely in its airy lyricism and often demure character. The
brief Scherzo is bouncy and joyous, with thumping percussion,
playful strings and spirited woodwinds. One could almost write
“ditto” for the finale (Allegro molto), as the mood of the music
and its playing are similar. But Thielemann adroitly catches
the humor too, with both clever accenting and well conceived
dynamics. Again, this is an account clearly among the finest
in recent times.
With those two successes we now come to the Third Symphony,
without doubt the most provocative performance here. Thielemann’s
tempos tend to fall slightly below the norm: his first movement,
at 19:52, is one of the longest I’ve encountered. The 1975 Solti/CSO
on Decca featured a similar tempo, clocking in at 19:25 but
without achieving the tension and epic sense Thielemann delivers.
Other Beethoven cyclists like Abbado (DG), Harnoncourt (Teldec),
Karajan (DG – three times), Masur (Pentatone), as well as Szell,
Toscanini, Jochum and many others, are brisker here and throughout
the symphony. That said, none of them quite manipulate the dynamics
and tempos the way Thielemann does.
Notice how after the crucial first eight notes of the first
movement’s main theme the dynamics drop, but then gradually
swell and go on to reach grandeur when the brass and horns reinforce
the scoring. Thielemann is a master of this kind of manipulation:
adjustments in dynamics and tempo never seem artificial in his
hands but fit right into the scheme of things. The whole movement
is brilliantly imagined and skilfully executed. The Funeral
March is grim and very slow, but again Thielemann deftly maintains
tension, this time by imparting weight in the way he blends
the lower strings and rhythms into the sound fabric. He works
up a real sense of desperation in the climactic moments and
the return of the main theme is troubled and dark.
The Scherzo is hearty and energetic, with tempos on the brisk
side. Even the horn-dominated trio comes across with greater
color and vitality than is often the case. The Finale begins
with an especially nervous onrush of notes and then the strings
deliver the pizzicato statement of the main theme softly and
deliberately. Once again, a head of steam is worked up and the
movement is given a vigorous and glorious treatment.
The two overtures are played with equal precision and insight,
although Thielemann’s holding back of the tempo in the main
theme of the Coriolan Overture may be a bit overdone. In all
performances the Vienna Philharmonic play with accuracy and
total commitment. The three bonus tracks, nearly an hour each,
offer worthwhile commentary in German (with multi-language subtitles)
on the music by Thielemann and musicologist Joachim Kaiser.
The camera-work is excellent throughout the performances and
the sound vivid and powerful. Abbado, Harnoncourt, Szell, Jochum
and Toscanini (if you don’t mind mono sound) are all worthwhile
Beethoven symphony cyclists, as is Michael Gielen, whose version
with the SWR Sinfonieorchester is available on DVD from Euro
Arts. However, the more one listens to Thielemann’s quite individual
approach to these symphonies, the more the performances sound
new and revelatory. Is he better than the others? It’s a tough
choice to make, but he’s nearly always as interesting and often