Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 (1800) [27:52]
Symphony No. 2 (1801-02) [34:07]
Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) (1803) [56:58]
Coriolan Overture (1807) [10:28]
Egmont Overture (1810) [10:58]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Christian Thielemann
rec. December, 2008 – April, 2010 at the Vienna Musikverein; Vienna, Austria
1080i Full HD; PCM Stereo/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0
C MAJOR 704804 [1 Blu-ray disc – Orchestral Works: 235:29; Documentary: 170:17]

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 more interesting.

Robert Cummings

The more one listens, the more the performances sound new and revelatory.