Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Symphonies
Symphony No. 1 [28:54]
Symphony No. 2 [36:27]
Symphony No. 3 [50:18]
Symphony No. 4 [36:38]
Symphony No. 5 [36:18]
Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” [42:28]
Symphony No. 7 [38:55]
Symphony No. 8 [28:16]
Symphony No. 9 [66:59]
Bonus Film: Abbado on Beethoven [26:00]
Bonus Feature: Conductor Camera, available on Symphonies 3, 5, 6, 7
Karita Mattila (soprano), Violetta Urmana (mezzo), Thomas Moser (tenor), Eike Wilm Schulte (bass), Swedish Radio Choir, Eric Ericson Chamber Choir
Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado
rec. Nos, 1-8, live, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, February 2001; No. 9, live, Philharmonie, Berlin, May 2000
Picture:16:9; Sound: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.0; Region: 0 (worldwide)
EUROARTS 2057378 [4 DVDs: 6:53:00]
This is Abbado’s vision of Beethoven as the conductor wanted it to be remembered. He recorded a Beethoven cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1980s and then another with the Berliners at the turn of the millennium. However, when in 2008 Deutsche Grammophon came to release Abbado’s third and final Beethoven cycle, the conductor chose to release on CD a set that had originally been filmed for DVD in 2001 and it is that set that is issued here. The only exception is the Ninth where, on that DG CD set, Abbado opted for an earlier Berlin performance. What happened to the Rome Ninth is not explained, and the mystery deepens further with this DVD release in that a different account again of the Ninth is opted for. A little confusing, but this set is still cause to celebrate as it’s full of delights.
Abbado’s view of Beethoven famously changed between his Vienna and Berlin cycles, and in the short film accompanying this set he explains that we shouldn’t be surprised at this, saying “throughout my career I found it logical to constantly seek something new.” He does that in his evolving style, but some listeners might see his view of Beethoven as being rather middle-of-the-road in the sense that he takes something of a central line between the rapid-fire fizz of the period movement and the old-school muscularity of Karajan or, more recently, Thielemann. He uses modern instruments and plenty of vibrato, but he is also happy to adopt some of the tempi espoused by the authenticists so that there is never a danger of lethargy or of the music collapsing under its own weight. The middle road isn’t in any way an insulting term, however, as he often brings out the best of the old and the best of the new. His First is solid and dependable, if unexceptional, but there is a real crackle of energy to the first movement of the Second and there is playing of quicksilver precision in the finale. He is helped by a Berlin Philharmonic that was on the top of its form and which had clearly grown to love him; he states in the documentary that around 80% of the players in 2001 had joined since he became their chief conductor, so they have grown and evolved together as a unit. It’s easy to take for granted just how exceptional their playing is, but every now and again a little touch will remind you what a fantastic team of musicians they are; the clarity of the horns in the Fifth, for example, or the sheer beauty of the string tone in the Pastoral or the Larghetto of the Second. When a team like this is guided by a master of Abbado’s calibre the results are always guaranteed to be exciting. The Eroica was a highlight for me: the first movement is vigorous and muscular but always cultured, never raw. The funeral march is profoundly lyrical while the Scherzo bristles with energy. The finale, meanwhile, proceeds with powerful breadth, paced with a profound sense of something majestic unfolding before finally letting rip in the coda. Abbado’s sense of architecture and scale is at its finest here.
The Fourth is successful in its first half, but really takes off with the liveliness of its last two movements, and there is titanic drama in the Fifth, every drop of which is ingrained onto Abbado’s face. The first movement is thrilling, the second has a lyrical grandeur, and the finale is hugely exciting, palpably building to the triumph of its final chord. Abbado is especially delightful to watch during the Pastoral; he clearly adores every bar of this symphony and the sheer, radiant delight of collective music making is abundantly apparent in his face. The finale, in particular, is radiant, spiritual, in a way you seldom hear, let alone see. The Eighth proceeds with bumptious good will, though also with rigorously worked out regard to the tempo relations, something he dwells on in the documentary. The Seventh isn’t quite so good as those around it: the outer movements are exhilarating, but the middle movements lack some of the power they can display elsewhere.
The Ninth is a problem, however. This one was recorded in the Berlin Philharmonie and there is a sense of a great occasion about it, but neither the interpretation nor the atmosphere are as exhilarating as they are in Rome. Abbado seems a little detached here, as if lacking some of the certainty and vision that characterises the other symphonies. The choral singing is good, especially on the great double fugue at Seid umschlungen, but the soloists are too variable, excellent ladies but a rather nondescript tenor and bass.
The sound on these DVDs is good, though rather focused on the left and right stereo channels so that the surround doesn’t bring a tremendous amount of gain. I’d suggest, therefore, that if you already have this set on the DG CDs then you wouldn’t really benefit from buying the DVDs. The one definite gain, however, comes from seeing Abbado and the way he lives every bar of this music, coaxing it into life with the love of a father for a child. One interesting extra feature that these DVDs have is that symphonies 3, 5, 6 and 7 have a “Conductor Camera” option whereby you can change the DVD angle so that you see the camera that is trained on Abbado throughout the whole performance. It’s a great feature and it’s often much more illuminating to watch this than the orthodox film view, the rather odd direction of which is one of my few complaints with this release: too many shots from the far back of the hall when the orchestra is so far away that you can see hardly anything. I really enjoyed taking advantage of this, and then I wondered why every music DVD doesn’t have this feature? After all, it’s merely editing in an extra track which will exist anyway, something it wouldn’t be difficult to do and which pretty much every DVD player allows the viewer to access.
Anyway, even though I haven’t heard Abbado’s other Beethoven cycles, the joy and the life behind these performances makes it pretty plain why he chose this set as his “legacy set” for Beethoven. Despite my reservations the peerless playing and outstanding direction make it a joy to experience.
Simon Thompson
The peerless playing and outstanding direction makes it a joy to experience.