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)
Coriolan Overture, Op. 62 (1807) [10:28]
Egmont Overture, Op. 84 (1810) [10:58]
Bonus: Discovering Beethoven – with Joachim Kaiser and Christian
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)
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)
Bonus: Discovering Beethoven [169:00]
Annette Dasch (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (alto), Piotr Beczala (tenor),
Georg Zeppenfeld (bass)
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
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Chinese
UNITEL C MAJOR 707204 BLU-RAY
[3 discs: 956:00]
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
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,
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.
Simon Thompson also listened to this set and he
made it his RECORDING OF THE MONTH in November