Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 4 (1806) [37:33]
Symphony No. 5 (1804-08) [34:34]
Symphony No. 6 (1808) [46:15]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Christian Thielemann
rec. December 2008 – April 2010, Vienna Musikverein; Vienna, Austria
CMajor 705004 [Symphonies: 133:00; Documentary: 171:00]
This Blu-Ray disc marks the first installment in a Beethoven symphony cycle by Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. All nine symphonies were recorded between December, 2008 and April, 2010 and are now being issued on three Blu-Ray discs and on three 3-disc sets of DVDs. On the evidence here I can say this will be one of the more interesting Beethoven cycles in the catalog. I use the word “interesting” advisedly, for Thielemann’s effort here will provoke some controversy. His take on these familiar works is highly individual, with all manner of detail pointed up, tempo adjustments in mid-stream, dynamics of multiple and subtle gradations, rests that are sometimes lengthened, and playing of the most exacting standards. Regarding the last observation, while the Vienna players deliver accurate and polished performances, they never sound stiff or reined-in, but rather natural and fully in sympathy with the emotional flow of the music. Indeed, they are of one mind in following Thielemann’s often unconventional way with the scores.
In general, Thielemann’s tempos tend to be moderate, but with an occasional tilt toward either the brisk or deliberate. Compared with conductors like Claudio Abbado, Roger Norrington, the late Herbert von Karajan, and so many others, Thielemann wouldn’t exactly be their polar opposite in tempo choices, but would stand in noticeable contrast, especially in works like the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. Thielemann’s Fifth is actually paced quite briskly.
One trait strongly in evidence is Thielemann’s tendency to contrast a second subject or alternate theme with the main theme by italicizing it in some way. In the Fourth Symphony’s first movement, for instance, the lively main theme is followed a second subject whose tempo is slightly held back initially, with momentum gradually returning. In the first movement of the Fifth, after a vigorous statement of the opening motto and its attending material, the second subject is presented conventionally at the outset, but gradually softens, the music seeming almost to fade away before returning to a normal level of dynamics.
There are many such passages in these three symphonies — passages Thielemann has carefully worked out in great detail, as he explains and discusses with musicologist Joachim Kaiser in the bonus feature on the disc, Discovering Beethoven. The Sixth, with its bucolic joy, lyrical beauty, peasant dancing and stormy character, is given a colorful and meticulous reading. Perhaps “meticulous” won’t suit some listeners in the way the main theme to the finale (Shepherd’s Song) is presented: it begins tentatively and quietly, then blossoms to a beautiful serenity. It’s not a radical re-thinking of this music, but it is imaginative and a bit risky.
Overall, it would be difficult to rank which is the most successful reading here, as all achieve a compelling level within the individual framework carved out by Thielemann. After a slow Adagio introduction, the Fourth takes off with vigor and joy, moods that remain throughout the symphony. The Fifth is muscular and epic, with Thielemann, curiously, not waiting for the applause to die down before beginning the performance, as he had done for the other two works here. I think this was deliberate, as if the conductor were trying to show “fate” suddenly “knocking at the door.” The Sixth is very lyrically played, with colorful peasant celebration in the third movement and a scary, powerful storm in the next.
But in all performances here, some listeners may find Thielemann’s use of dynamics, tempo shifts, extended pauses and other techniques a bit bothersome. I didn’t, because nothing is excessive and Thielemann makes a good case for his interpretation, imparting a sense of logic and a natural flow to the music. It won’t displace performances in the cycles of other Beethoven symphony sets — Abbado/Berlin, Harnoncourt/COE, Szell/Cleveland, Jochum/London Symphony — but it can stand probably alongside them and well ahead of many others, including at least the last two of Karajan, which pour on too much legato for my taste.
As suggested above the Vienna Philharmonic plays well in all the works. The camera-work and picture quality are superb. The aforementioned bonus feature offers valuable insights into Thielemann’s views on Beethoven’s music - the language is German, with multi-language subtitles.
This disc is probably eminently worth your while, especially if you want to hear a somewhat different take on these Beethoven warhorses.
Eminently worth your while, especially if you want to hear a somewhat different take on these Beethoven warhorses.