RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Symphonies
Symphonies 1-9 + Coriolan and Egmont overtures
Discovering Beethoven: a documentary about each symphony
Wiener Philharmoniker/Christian Thielemann
Full details listed at end of review
UNITEL C MAJOR 705308 [9 DVDs: Music: 446:00; Documentaries: 510:00]
Decades ago, when classical music on record was emerging as a mass market product for the first time, Beethoven interpretation sounded big, bold, slow and muscular, like a pronouncement from Mount Olympus. Great interpreters of bygone days, such as Furtwängler, Klemperer or Walter, emphasised the monumental nature of Beethoven’s symphonies with large-scale playing, big sound and often luxurious tempi. The standard benchmark for this style – often inaccurately, in my view – was Karajan’s 1962 set with the Berlin Philharmonic, the first Beethoven series that was planned and recorded as a cycle. Hugely influential in its day, Karajan’s Beethoven seemed to lay down a template that many other conductors followed. Then with the rise of the period performance movement, and especially in the 1990s, attitudes to Beethoven changed, and with the emergence of interpreters like Norrington, Harnoncourt, Mackerras and Zinman a new style of Beethoven playing emerged: lean, lithe, smaller-scale and more transparent. This then became the new orthodoxy, and even venerable institutions like the Vienna Philharmonic adopted it in their 2002 set with Simon Rattle. The achievement of Christian Thielemann, in this new Beethoven cycle, also with the Vienna Philharmonic, is to argue a convincing case that the older style of Beethoven playing is still relevant to the 21st century and that the muscular, broader approach to Beethoven even now has something to say.
Right from the start it is apparent that Thielemann is, for want of a better phrase, an old-school conductor in his approach to Beethoven, but that isn’t to say that he hasn’t learnt anything from the discoveries of period practitioners like Harnoncourt and Zinman: rather he has listened to their revelations and responded to them in his own unique way, producing a Beethoven approach that is distinctly his own. The booklet notes for these DVDs describe Thielemann as seeking “to restore to the Classical and Romantic repertory the sort of musical riches and unprecedented expressivity that we associate with a conductor like Wilhelm Furtwängler”. It’s a big claim, but it’s not as simple as that. The critic and musicologist Joachim Kaiser, who presents all the extra documentaries, describes Thielemann as “an adventurous conservative”, and that’s a much better way to put it. Thielemann combines the best of the old with the best of the new, producing an organic, vitally alive Beethoven cycle with its roots in the old school but with some period influences too.
The first things I listened to in this set were the two overtures. Thielemann’s slow, monumental approach to the opening of Egmont makes it much more powerful and accentuates the contrast with the Allegro, and this characterises his way with the symphonies too. His First begins slowly and with a monumental edge, but this enables him to keep something in reserve for later so that the Menuet has undeniable “oomph”. Likewise, in the Second the introduction is unashamedly a slow one, and it is all the more effective for that. When it begins, the main section of the movement is really con brio, bristling with energy and crackling with style; judging from the musicians’ faces they are clearly enjoying themselves. Thielemann takes the Larghetto at what is - for today - a daringly unhurried tempo, making it mellow and very beautiful, and here, as throughout this cycle, there is an incomparable blend to the Vienna string sound which really comes alive in DTS surround sound. I loved the way Thielemann obviously teases out every phrase, extracting every ounce of beauty and meaning. Some might call this ponderous, but it’s all of a piece with his vision for Beethoven and, for me, it really worked. Real sharpness of attack cranks up the Scherzo to the nth degree and the finale goes off with the energy of a Catherine Wheel. In the accompanying documentary Thielemann denies entirely the idea of a great gulf between the Second and Third Symphonies: instead he sees one as a natural next step after the other and I, for one, was convinced. This big, ballsy approach works just as well for the Eighth, in no way a miniature symphony when performed like this. The first movement explodes off the page, and the menuet has as much swagger as the scherzo has delicacy. The finale is electric too.
The most important thing about Thielemann’s Beethoven is that it is responsive and alive. For many this may also be the most controversial thing about it too, particularly in his approach to tempi, which is remarkably flexible. I doubt he has taken much heed of Beethoven’s metronome markings, but even if he had then he disregards them freely as and when he needs to. With Coriolan, for example, he pulls the tempo around all over the place for dramatic effect, with an accelerando here and a rallentando there. It lends colour and drama to the pacing and, for me, it worked, but I can appreciate how it might infuriate others. This is true of his approach to the symphonies too, but it’s more controversial. In the opening of the Eroica, for example, he adopts a myriad different tempi for the different sections of the movement: even in the first statement of the first subject there are plenty of ralls and hesitations before the subject unfolds fully. During the run-up to the crashing discords of the development the movement threatens to grind to a halt completely, before speeding up as the oboe theme enters. For me it’s an effective – and quite exciting – depiction of the drama of chaos and renewal, but some will find it off-putting.
There are also times when I think Thielemann’s approach to tempi seems too self-conscious, most damagingly in the opening burst of the finale of the Fifth. After what had been a very exciting and purposeful account of the symphony so far, Thielemann slows up dramatically for the first two bars of the finale with the entry of the extra brass, but then speeds up enormously for bar three onwards. He then adopts the same strategy for the exposition repeat and the recapitulation. To my ears this distends the music and distorts it to the point of wilfulness. It wrecks the sense of organic growth that had been present in the music thus far. In the Ninth it is much more successful though - particularly in the first and last movements. The first subject emerges from the opening like the sun from a gas cloud and builds up a titanic power that never lets up. Furthermore, the finale’s contrasting moods seem almost to give Thielemann carte blanche to try out every technique in his armoury, which he does to scintillating effect. The opening paragraph is responsive and dynamic, like an operatic recitative, and an elongated pause before the first appearance of the Ode to Joy theme gives its unfolding a sense of cumulative power that builds steadily. The great double fugue after the “Turkish” section is a core piece of the architecture: he slows down in the lead up to it, making it burst onto the stage with electric power, and then slows down drastically in the lead-up to the joyous, full statement of the Ode, rendering it all the more ebullient. The ensuing sections are all very different, but Seid umschlungen seems to be, for him, the central core of the whole work. Soloists are all very good, though Zeppenfeld’s bass doesn’t have the clarion quality it needs. The choral singing is also excellent, and the DTS surround really comes into its own here.
In some ways it is the most rhythmically unstable symphonies that are the most successful. The Seventh presents Thielemann with a real challenge which he meets triumphantly, shaping a living, breathing organism from Beethoven’s notes. I have seldom heard the bounce of the last two movements of the Fourth played so convincingly as here. Referring to the Fourth’s finale, Thielemann says that the players and conductor must have absolutely rigorous control in order to evoke an atmosphere of the music spiralling out of control. This is done very successfully, but could just as easily apply to the whole of the Seventh too. The Pastoral is also a delight: warm and expansive with a real feeling of joy in its enjoyment of the natural and spiritual worlds, though the entry of the brass in the storm could have been more decisive.
In some ways this is a try-before-you-buy set, as Thielemann’s interpretative decisions won’t be to everyone’s taste. However, the playing and the presentation surely will. The Vienna Philharmonic clearly enjoy a very close relationship with this conductor and they seem to relish the opportunity to play with him. The beauty of the string sound and the character of the wind playing are second to none, and they are captured brilliantly in the splendour of the Muskiverein. Furthermore, the quality of the surround sound is excellent: the centre speaker is perhaps a little too prominent, but the immersive experience is most effective. Each director manages to capture the picture well too, putting the eye where the ear suggests it should be, though Agnes Méth’s filming of the Eroica is the least successful, choppy and unsure of itself at times.
The other USP of this set is the series of accompanying documentaries. Each symphony has an individual film lasting between 50 and 60 minutes, analysing the background of the work and deconstructing Thielemann’s interpretation. The presenter of each documentary is Joachim Kaiser, the grand old man of German music criticism. In each film he gives his own view of the symphony and then engages Thielemann in a conversation to tease out why Thielemann has come to the interpretations he has. I was quite excited about watching these, but they weren’t as revelatory as I hoped they would be. The main problem is that too much of each film consists merely of repeating the footage of the symphony you have just watched. For the shorter symphonies more than half of the running time comprises simply repeating what you have already seen. The most successful documentary is the one on the Ninth, partly because of what is said about it but also because there is less space for mere repetition. Kaiser and Thielemann enjoy sparking ideas off one another and much of what they say is interesting and memorable. We also get some very interesting comparisons with other filmed Beethoven symphonies from Karajan, Bernstein and Paavo Järvi. In truth, though, while they may have been fairly interesting for understanding Thielemann’s approach, I can’t say they fundamentally altered my view of Beethoven’s symphonies beyond a little insight here or there.
Still, even without these documentaries this set would demand the attention of most music-lovers. Thielemann’s Beethoven is rigorous, intellectual and well considered, even if you don’t always agree with him, and the playing is outstanding throughout. Unitel has given us an interpretation which won’t replace the classics but is worthy to sit alongside them, a bold attempt to recapture and redefine Beethoven for the 21st century.
A bold attempt to recapture and redefine Beethoven for the 21st century.
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Symphonies (+ Coriolan and Egmont overtures)
Symphony No. 1 [27:52]
Symphony No. 2 [34:07]
Symphony No. 3 [56:58]
Symphony No. 4 [37:33]
Symphony No. 5 [34:34]
Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” [46:15]
Symphony No. 7 [37:11]
Symphony No. 8 [28:16]
Symphony No. 9 [72:31]
Coriolan Overture [10:28]
Egmont Overture [10:58]
Extras: Discovering Beethoven: a documentary about each symphony where Christian Thielemann discusses his interpretation with musicologist Joachim Kaiser (each documentary c. 55 minutes long)
Annette Dasch (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (alto), Piotr Beczala (tenor), Georg Zeppenfeld (bass); Wiener Singverein; Wiener Philharmoniker/Christian Thielemann
rec. Nos. 1-2 and Coriolan: December 2008, directed by Brian Large; Nos. 3-4: March 2009, directed by Agnes Méth; Nos. 5-6: April 2010, directed by Karina Fibich; Nos. 7-8 and Egmont Overture: November 2009, directed by Michael Beyer; No. 9: April 2010, directed by Agnes Méth
Filmed in High Definition, Picture Format 16:9, Sound Formats PCM Stereo, DTS 5.0, Region Code 0
Full details listed at end of review
UNITEL C MAJOR 703508 [9 DVDs: Music: 446:00; Documentaries: 510:00]