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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Symphonies
BD 1 [326:00]
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1799-1800) [27:52]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801-1802) [34:07]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 Eroica (1803-1804) [56:58]
Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 (1807) [10:28]
Egmont Overture, Op. 84 (1810) [10:58]
Bonus: Discovering Beethoven – with Joachim Kaiser and Christian Thielemann [170:00]
BD 2 [304:00]
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 (1806) [37:33]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1804-1808) [34:34]
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 Pastoral (1804-1808) [46:15]
Bonus: Discovering Beethoven [171:00]
BD 3 [326:00]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811-1812) [37:11]
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1812) [28:16]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op.125 Choral (1817-1824) [72:31]
Bonus: Discovering Beethoven [169:00]
Annette Dasch (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (alto), Piotr Beczala (tenor), Georg Zeppenfeld (bass)
Wiener Singverein
Wiener Philharmoniker/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, Goldener Saal der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna. December 2008 (Symphonies 1, 2 and Coriolan); March 2009 (Symphonies 3 and 4); November 2009 (Symphonies 7, 8 and Egmont); April 2010 (Symphonies 5, 6 and 9)
Video directors: Brian Large (Symphonies 1, 2 and Coriolan); Agnes Méth (Symphonies 3, 4 and 9); Karina Fibich (Symphonies 5 and 6); Michael Beyer (Symphonies , 7, 8 and Egmont)
Picture format: NTSC/16:9
Sound: PCM Stereo/DTS-HD Master Audio Surround 5.0
Region: A/B/C
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Chinese
UNITEL C MAJOR 707204 BLU-RAY [3 discs: 956:00]

Experience Classicsonline

With Mahler’s nine symphonies still ringing in my ears – review – I approached this Beethoven box with some trepidation. After all, this is the musical equivalent of year zero, where it all began; at least it did for me, forty years ago, with Karl Böhm’s much-prized Beethoven set. Good, old-fashioned performances they were too, his Pastoral still a benchmark today. This familiar landscape changed with the arrival of those sometimes-sandaled Hippies, earnest in their quest for authenticity. Beethoven was an early candidate, but the search has since widened to include late-Romantics as well. Whatever one’s views of such revisionism, one has to concede that it’s brought freshness and vigour to repertoire dulled by accretions and outmoded performance practices.

I did wonder where Thielemann’s Beethoven cycle – the first on Blu-ray – would be placed on this spectrum, but given the presence of the Wiener Philharmoniker I’d say most likely towards the traditional end. Recorded live over a period of three years, these performances and documentaries were released separately, and now appear in a handsome – and sturdy – slip case. I’m generally unconvinced by these ‘bonus’ items, often an awkward mix of scholarship, trendy visuals and unappetising sound-bytes. That said, no-one could accuse C Major of stinting on high seriousness, with veteran critic Joachim Kaiser leading the charge.

Looking beyond the music to technical issues, I’m concerned that a number of Blu-rays don’t live up to their promise of superior sound and picture quality. Indeed, the Salzburg concert from C Major – review – seems to revert to mono, or something approaching it, when the PCM stereo option is selected on the menu. Fortunately, the surround track rescues this disc from undeserved oblivion. But there – as here – C Major rather coyly refers to these recordings as being ‘mastered from an HD source’. Why not do what other labels do, and be more specific? Also, the picture on the Salzburg recording isn’t terribly sharp. To be fair, other labels aren’t blameless, but I hope a prestigious project such as this won’t throw up any audiovisual nasties.

Suppositions and caveats aside, just how good is this new cycle? The WP could probably play this music in their sleep, but there’s nothing somnolent about this performance of the First Symphony. Apart from their glorious, refulgent tone, they spring rhythms beautifully, and articulation – like the picture – is spot on. There’s elegance aplenty and, in the Minuet, extra animation that would surely tax old bones. In short, this is as traditional as it gets – no startling insights or daring diversions – the whole performance, like maestro Thielemann’s parting, very neat indeed. And that, perhaps, is what bothers me; for all its polish the music lacks that last degree of spontaneity and sparkle.

The dark-toned Second Symphony sallies forth with splendid weight and momentum, the repeated tune that dominates the first movement as catchy as ever. Perspectives are just fine, internal balances and instrumental dialogues very well judged. As for those fabled Viennese horns, they’re supremely civilised – just like this performance, in fact – but for all the felicities of this great band my concentration flagged in the Larghetto, reviving somewhat in the deft little Scherzo. The Allegro molto is nicely turned too, so why do I feel so unsettled and unsatisfied? The audience clearly adores Thielemann and the orchestra are as supple and sophisticated as usual, but really it’s just too meticulous – too manicured – for my tastes.

Anyone reared on the craggy grandeur of Klemperer’s Eroica might wonder what the tightly controlled – and controlling – Thielemann will make of the Third Symphony. Frankly, the first movement is unexceptional, lacking in essential tension and release – an unvarying surge and retreat is not a substitute – the funeral march similarly uninspired. That said, I did find myself thinking of Bruckner at times – something I don’t usually do at this juncture – such is the breadth and nobility of Beethoven’s writing. As for the Scherzo, it’s much too glib, the great Finale marred by exaggerated contrasts and self-conscious phrasing. What this adds up to is a flaccid, unconvincing Eroica, nothing like the fiery, proto-Romantic work it undoubtedly is.

At least Thielemann’s Coriolan has some lead in its pencil, but Egmont is blunted by curiously veiled sound – in PCM stereo at least – that smothers the strings and damps the brass. I imagine that’s an occupational hazard when assembling programmes from several performances, with different directors and sound set-ups. On the whole there’s little to carp about when it comes to sound and picture, director Brian Large as precise and intuitive as ever in the first two symphonies and Coriolan, Agnes Méth slightly less so in the Eroica. But an awkward pan or two matters little if the music-making is anything special; so far it isn’t.

Loath to turn this review into a litany of dislikes and disappointments, I took a day’s break before spinning disc two. The louring start to the Fourth Symphony – there’s Bruckner again – always takes me by surprise. But what really caught me off-guard was the unexpected virility of this reading. At last there’s muscle and sinew – how different from that effete Eroica – the deep, wide soundstage adding to the thrust and excitement of this performance. What a remarkable turnaround, although there’s a worrying return to atrophying mannerisms in the Adagio. Still, there are characterful contributions from flute and clarinet, the timps wonderfully crisp and authoritative. And although the voltage drops a little in the last two movements, this remains a satisfying Fourth.

Alas it doesn’t last, Thielemann charging into the Fifth Symphony before the initial applause has even ended. Those who thrill to the sheer drive of, say, Kleiber fils in this work will be disappointed – and mightily so – by the soft-edges on show here, made worse by a diffuse and boomy recording. There’s precious little tension here, the Andante swoony, the Scherzo foursquare. And if you like your finale to be a series of cliff-hangers these mere declivities won’t do it for you. Indeed, in readings that major in extreme contrasts, this flat Fifth goes to the other extreme. I wonder what the Schlegels would make of it all? No wunderschöning or prachtvolleying from me, I’m afraid.

Past the halfway mark and I’m still waiting for some genuine epiphanies. The Sixth Symphony, for which I have great affection, could be the make or break for me. Karl Böhm’s classic account has a natural ease and charm that I’ve rarely heard equalled, let alone bettered, qualities most at risk from mannered performances. One feels a real sense of joy as Böhm’s players embrace the countryside and delight in the the babble of brook. Ever the suave metropolitan, Thielemann seems uncomfortable in this rustic setting, nature overburdened with artifice at every turn. Even the storm has more bluster than menace, the heart somewhat stonier than expected in the final movement.

It would be difficult to imagine a Pastoral that fails to engage on so many levels, yet this is it. I’m utterly bewildered at this point, unsure if I’m just on a dyspeptic streak or these are genuinely dull performances. Dipping into the symphonies heard thus far I’m inclined to plump for the latter, as much as it pains me to do so. But there are still three works to go; the Seventh Symphony doesn’t get off to the best of starts, with a heavy-footed Poco sostenuto-Vivace. Most distracting is Thielemann’s expressive underlining in the Allegretto, robbing the music of vitality and lift. The Presto and Allegro con brio are much more successful, our maestro letting off the brakes at last. The horns are just wonderful here, adding much-needed tingle to an otherwise intermittent performance.

Happily, the Eighth Symphony is a complete success, weighty yet incisive, mobile yet trenchant. Thielemann tends to shine in Beethoven’s more propulsive music, and the full, detailed recording makes this an engrossing Eighth from start to finish. The Allegretto scherzando is a delight, poised and pointful, the rat-a-tatting last movement superbly done. Goodness, if only the rest of the set were this compelling. Michael Beyer’s direction is unobtrusive and I was most impressed by the fine sonics. This is what all Blu-rays should be but, regrettably, they aren’t.

Having reached the summit – it’s been a vexing climb – what’s the view like from the top? On paper the Ninth Symphony should be the spiritual and musical peak of any cycle. That said, I have some reservations about the soloists, Mihoko Fujimura especially, as she was so underwhelming in Jonathan Nott’s recent Mahler 3. As before, Böhm’s final recording of the Ninth – with Placido Domingo and Jessye Norman in the starry line-up – is my benchmark for this great work, despite a very protracted Adagio. It would be unfair to expect Thielemann to reach such sublime heights – the WP must have sensed this was Böhm’s last hurrah – but I still hoped for something special.

So, does Thielemann deliver? In a word, yes. The first movement is precise and propulsive, misty and mysterious, the symphony unfolding with a real sense of drama and purpose. It’s arresting stuff, the Scherzo as bold as Böhm’s, the finely spun Adagio ineffably beautiful. Thielemann loses the pulse a little in the last movement, and there’s some of that irritating surge and retreat, but it holds together tolerably well. The soloists, ranged in front of the chorus, are very distant indeed, but then that’s usually how one hears them in the concert hall. Bass Georg Zeppenfeld is a bit undernourished, but generally the quartet is well matched. This isn’t a typically febrile conclusion – the piccolos suddenly much too prominent – but it’s a rousing one. The conductor, visibly moved, bows his head as the applause begins.

Not the most Olympian of Ninths, perhaps, but it’s satisfying. It seems Thielemann is inclined more towards Dionysus than Apollo, which makes his dull Third and Fifth all the more perplexing. As for the substantial documentaries, I share Simon Thompson’s reservations about overkill, with some discussions lasting much longer than the works themselves (review). That said, Kaiser and Thielemann establish a decent rapport, and it’s good to see the latter – whose marionette-like podium manner might suggest a man of some reserve – looking so affable. That said, I’m still not enamoured of these things, even if they do offer useful insights into the music.

This box is much too volatile to recommend, but if you must have these symphonies on Blu-ray Thielemann is your only option at the moment. However, if you’re still happy to have them on DVD I’d suggest Claudio Abbado’s highly acclaimed set from TDK.

Dan Morgan

Simon Thompson also listened to this set and he made it his RECORDING OF THE MONTH in November