RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 (1811) [37:11]
Symphony No. 8 (1812-02) [28:16]
Symphony No. 9 (1824) [72:31]
Wiener Singverein/Johannes Prinz
Annette Dasch (soprano); Mihoko Fujimura (contralto); Piotr Beczala (tenor); Georg Zeppenfeld (bass)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Christian Thielemann
Discovering Beethoven - Commentary by Christian Thielemann and Joachim Kaiser
rec. December 2008 - April 2010, Vienna Musikverein; Vienna, Austria
1080i Full HD; PCM Stereo/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0
UNITEL/CMAJOR 705204 BLU-RAY [Orchestral Works: 137:58; Documentary: 168.58]
This is the final instalment in Christian Thielemann’s Beethoven Symphony cycle. Much the same interpretive style is in evidence here as in the first and second volumes: Thielemann tends to use a fairly liberal amount of rubato throughout these scores, including protracted rests, while incorporating a wide range of dynamics, often with sound levels dropping quickly and then swelling gradually back to mezzo-forte or forte. He also takes a more Romantic view of these symphonies than most other conductors. In addition, he manages to attain the highest performance standards from the orchestra, as attacks are potent and crisp, intonation seemingly perfect and playing ever so accurate. Some claim the Vienna Philharmonic is the greatest orchestra in the world, and while I won’t endorse or dispute that assertion, I will say that this Beethoven cycle would be strong evidence to support the contention.
The first movement of the Seventh is given a muscular performance, but with plenty of bounce to the rhythms. The Poco sostenuto introduction is paced somewhat briskly, as has been common since the 1980s, and the main Vivace section opens with fine work from the flautist. The strings and horns impart a glorious sense to the joyous main theme and the whole movement is utterly electric. The ensuing Allegretto has a stately character in its unhurried tempo, emerging from ominous mystery at the outset and building toward a dignified beauty, all in brilliant playing.
The Scherzo abounds in vigour, but there is an undertow of weightiness that eventually comes from the percussion and double-basses to offer contrast. The Trio offers rather staid music and it rings out with epic character. Thielemann conducts the finale at what would be described as a moderate tempo today, as opposed to the more breathless accounts by Abbado/Berlin and others. The approach works well here, the music coming across with plenty of energy and wit, and with a final sense of triumph. This is one of the finest accounts of the Seventh on record.
The joyous Eighth Symphony is a delight here. While this is quite a light work, there is, once again, a certain weightiness of approach. But it works: with minute tempo manipulations and deftly controlled dynamics, Thielemann shows that happy music can have muscle and big climactic moments that smile all the more. The finale is a gem: fleet, invigorating and with some of the most perfect orchestral playing you’re likely to encounter in this work.
The Ninth is a prime vehicle for Thielemann’s generally epic approach to Beethoven. The orchestral playing exhibits the usual perfection and commitment from the VPO in all movements, and the vocal quartet in the finale, despite their lack of star power, are generally quite convincing. Annette Dasch was especially outstanding. The chorus is fine too. To back up a moment … The Scherzo has a relatively leisurely tempo, but plenty of weightiness. Still, some may find this movement lacking a bit in drive. The third movement is also very broadly paced, but here Thielemann imparts a richer sense of Romanticism, which he is attempting to restore in Beethoven. On the whole, this Ninth is a splendid performance, possibly ranking with the best. Overall, consensus will have it that this cycle of the Beethoven nine symphonies will stand among the finest ever, I predict.
The sound in this set is so vivid throughout, so lifelike that you can hear the minutest detail: a couple of minutes or so into the first movement of the Ninth Symphony (track 14 - 118:30) the principal clarinettist in an idle moment blows against his instrument twice to clear it, and if you listen attentively, you can hear these breathy swishes quite distinctly amid the other considerable orchestral activity. That might be better than being there in a front row seat for the concert. Bravo, engineers! I’m glad no members of the orchestra were experiencing indigestion that night! The camera work is also excellent, always offering pertinent shots of soloists, instrumentalists or sections.
The bonus feature on this disc, Discovering Beethoven, contains almost three hours of commentary on the three symphonies by Thielemann and musicologist Joachim Kaiser. It is a considerable add-on, well worth your while.
If I had to select the best Beethoven cycles available today, I would pick, different as they all are, Abbado (DG), Harnoncourt (Teldec), Jochum (EMI), Szell (Sony), perhaps Toscanini (RCA) and this new one. In fact, this would probably be my top choice, not least because of the superior sound and obvious advantages of video. In sum, this is the third and final leg in an historic musical event.
Among the best Beethoven cycles available today …In fact, this would probably be my top choice … an historic musical event.