It is clear to me that anyone who accuses Thielemann of being
a dull in this Beethoven cycle has either not listened to the
Allegro con brio of the first movement of the Second
Symphony, or not listened properly, or has no ears to hear.
To get the proper measure of this set, start there. It is one
of the most joyous, released and sheerly infectious accounts
I have ever heard, full of drive, impish wit and manic ecstasy.
The orchestra is obviously having a high old time. As the DVD
amply illustrates, they love playing for Thielemann and are
clearly of the opinion that anyone who wants etiolated string-tone,
vibrato-free whining and clipped phrasing can go and stick his
head in a bucket. The fiddles of the Vienna Philharmonic slither
around like a greased porker at a hog roast before easing into
the ensuing Larghetto with the utmost suavity. It is
equally apparent that the paying public seated in the splendidly
named Goldener Saal der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde knows
what it wants to hear, too - and they got it in this series
of the complete symphonies recorded in numerical sequence between
December 2008 and April 2010.
I find it scandalously incomprehensible that the music critic
of a major broadsheet should recently have complained
that the clarity of these live recordings only serves to highlight
the inadequacy of the VPO and then continued by questioning
its status as one of the world's best orchestras. "
He is clearly in thrall to an entirely different musical aesthetic
from the conductor, the orchestra, the audience and all those
who have greeted these performances so enthusiastically. We
really are at a cultural crossroads if such a glorious interpretation
may be derided with impunity by a major commentator.
Yet as the interviews in the accompanying DVD demonstrate, Thielemann
is no recidivist dinosaur. He explains that he seeks to find
an artistic direction which synthesises the virtues of the HIP
movement with the Viennese tradition of interpreting Beethoven.
He is thus, in a sense, an open-minded conservative. He rightly
points out that by all accounts Beethoven wasn’t a very good
conductor, certainly never had at his disposal an orchestra
like the VPO and was clearly unreliable when it came to those
contentious metronome markings. It might well be that convicted
HIPsters, on listening to these accounts, will conclude that
Thielemann was only paying lip-service to the tenets of their
creed but I am in no doubt regarding the sincerity of the conductor,
his orchestra and his producers in their desire to honour Beethoven.
So we certainly hear something which is much more indebted to
the legacy of Karajan, Cluytens and Klemperer than to Norrington,
Goodman or Hogwood, but there is a vibrancy, energy and freedom
to Thielemann’s which convey a special joie de vivre.
Again, the rehearsal clips on the DVD confirm what an acute
ear he has for sonic nuance, tonal balance and subtle phrasing;
he is especially good at bringing out the lower voices and his
agogic finessing, while not as overt or audacious as the now
vanished manner of Furtwängler, ensures an extraordinarily satisfying
Nor are these performances by any means abnormally slow or marmoreal.
To take a random sample from the middle period symphonies, comparing
Thielemann’s speeds with those of previous recordings from the
canon of the accepted greats, we find that Thielemann is only
as slow as Kleiber in the Allegro of the Fifth, virtually
identical to Maag and Cluytens in the Sixth - except Cluytens
doesn’t make the repeats in the first movement - takes the Presto
in the Seventh faster than Kubelik, Maag, Casals and Kleiber
and maintains tempi in the Eighth virtually identical to those
of Maag and Cluytens. It is true that HIP conductors are generally
faster but one might equally point to Toscanini for an example
of thrilling, driven propulsiveness, whereas such as Mackerras
sound merely hasty. And there are times when you can hear Thielemann
giving almost undue emphasis to the downbeat in every bar, so
very few of the generalised accusations hold up under scrutiny.
One disgruntled reviewer elsewhere complains that Thielemann’s
beat in the first movement of the Eroica is excessively
slow yet has failed to acknowledge that he actually makes the
exposition repeat unlike the supposedly superior version with
which he is making comparisons supposedly invidious to Thielemann.
It is another, different and possibly valid argument to object
that taking the repeat unnecessarily prolongs and mars the progression
of the movement, but for the most part too many carpers are
hearing what they want to hear instead of examining the facts.
For me, Thielemann’s Beethoven sounds consistently fresh and
exploratory infused with a genuine desire to rediscover the
music as it is being played. This is a set ideally conceived
to drive the wedge deeper between those who want the breathless,
bright-eyed sparkiness of, say, Mackerras, and those who welcome
what they regard as a return to sanity in the form of the great
Romantic tradition of Beethoven interpretation. Thielemann plays
to his clientele’s tastes – not to mention his own and those
of his orchestra.
As the second essay in the booklet explains, the VPO’s credentials
for claiming “authenticity” in their style of Beethoven playing
could hardly be stronger, for all that the “authenticists” excoriate
their vibrato and ripe sound. The orchestra was specifically
formed to play Beethoven and has done so since its first performance
of the Seventh on Easter Monday 1842. Thielemann takes the orchestra’s
famed sonority and builds on it.
These are performances all of a piece; Thielemann has imposed
his conception upon the cycle as a whole and the emphasis upon
weight and grandeur without excluding excitement. The Pastoral
is typifies his approach: warm, lyrical and gently bucolic,
redolent of a wise humanism closest to Cluytens rather than
the bracing account Karajan delivers in his Moscow performance,
yet the peasants’ knees-up is sprightly and the storm powerful
without ever becoming vulgar – and it builds to a terrific climax.
The Fourth is as fine a reading as I have ever heard: the “cat-like
tread” of its opening giving promise of a performance which
ideally combines rigorous control with thrilling moments of
release, especially in the finale. The Third and Fifth are monumental,
although Thielemann pulls the tempo about daringly in the first
movement of the Eroica and the finale of the Fifth.
The Seventh and Eighth are similarly grand in the Klemperer
mode. Perhaps predictably, I found the Ninth the least satisfactory,
mainly because of the strength of competition and the difficulty
in finding modern soloists up to its vocal challenges. Having
said that, it’s really only the final movement that slightly
disappoints: the soprano is the weak link, being rather wobbly
and screaming her top B insecurely. Tenor Piotr Beczala has
trouble finding the right pitch for his first entry on “Froh”
and never sounds very comfortable but is adequate, as is the
ever-restrained Fujimura. Georg Zeppenfeld is more baritone
than bass but he has a firm, focused voice and declaims dramatically.
The Singverein are lusty and committed, their penetration and
intonation excellent. Otherwise, the other movements are titanic
and I very much like the way Thielemann engineers a rallentando
each time before the entry of the Ode, thereby generating
real climactic punch.
The recording quality is superb, although the wide dynamic range
and Thielemann’s insistence upon real pianissimos that undoubtedly
carried in the hall present challenges to the engineers and
hi-fi equipment. There is very little audience noise – the occasional
cough but nothing disturbing and in quality this recording can
stand comparison with any. The brass and hard-edged timpani
come across with amazing clarity and immediacy but as I remarked
earlier, the listener is always aware of the bottom-line harmonies.
The packaging is de luxe: a handsome, off-white cloth-bound
case and booklet, with white, purple and gold-stamped, embossed
lettering, which has the unfortunate side-effect of making small-font
information such as the catalogue number impossible to read.
There are rather too many arty, hagiographic photographs of
Thielemann reminiscent of the Karajan cult, and excellent essays
on “Beethoven’s Symphonies in an Age of Revolution” by author
Tim Blanning and “Beethoven and the Formation of the Vienna
Philharmonic” by Prof. Dr. Clemens Hellsberg, first violinist
and president of the orchestra. The discs are contained in cardboard
sleeves bound into the booklet. The voice-overs on the DVD documentary
work well, except I wish someone had corrected the pronunciation
of “timbre” so that it rhymes with “clamber” rather than perpetrating
the solecism “tombre”.
You probably already know by now whether you are susceptible
to the more Olympian interpretative stance adopted here by Thielemann
and could hardly complain if you bought them expecting something
more lean and lithe of the kind attempted – rather disastrously
in my view – by Rattle with the same, I suspect, unwilling,
orchestra in 2002. Thielemann has been quoted 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”. In my judgement,
he succeeds admirably without necessarily abandoning some of
the lessons period practice has taught over the last thirty
years; this is indeed “Beethoven for the Twenty First Century”.