Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphonies
Symphony No 1 in C, Op 21 [27:20]
Symphony No 2 in D, Op 36 [36:37]
Symphony No 3 in E flat, Op 55 [49:27]
Symphony No 4 in B flat, Op 60 [35:40]
Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op 67 [37:21]
Symphony No 6 in F, Op 68 [41:28]
Symphony No 7 in A, Op 92 [42:25]
Symphony No 8 in F, Op 93 [26:35]
Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125 [72:15]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. 1975-1980, Lukaskirche, Dresden
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94289 [5 CDs: 369:08]
By my highly scientific count, Herbert Blomstedt’s cycle of the Beethoven symphonies is now appearing on CD for the 350,369th time. We’ve reviewed the complete box set at least twice already (once in 2002, once in 2008) and the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies twice by themselves (once in 2003, once in 2008). If you are one of the twelve people left on Earth who does not yet have a copy-well, I’d say “here’s your chance,” but you’ll have at least a dozen more chances. At any rate, this is really good Beethoven, so buy the box already!
Blomstedt’s Beethoven is solidly romantic and big-boned, with a full-size modern orchestra. It won’t be for those who like those readings which are influenced by the period-performance movement; Blomstedt omits repeats - as in the Third and Seventh first movements, though he does repeat the scherzo of the Fifth! - and indulges in slow timings like the seventeen minutes lavished on the Ninth’s opening allegro. But there is plenty of energy in most of the readings, and the rich playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden is a satisfying trait on its own.
The set is remarkably consistent in its vision and style. This leads to compromises: the first movement of the Fifth drags, and a friend who listened told me it lacked drama; the First symphony’s finale really lacks a spring in its step, coming off stodgily. The fast movements of the Second can be a little old-fashioned, although the larghetto is gorgeous. Blomstedt may not be off to the races, but his Seventh still has Bacchanalian spirit and truly exultant French horns, his Eighth still tickles with mock-heroism, and his Fifth gets better as its progresses - I prefer Kleiber and Immerseel. The Eroica is very professionally done, reminiscent of Karajan’s vision, though Dausgaard has ruined all other Thirds for me. The Fourth is a little plain, but the orchestral sound is ravishing, almost as much as in the Pastoral, which simply glows from start to finish. The Ninth follows a pattern established by the Fifth: a somewhat staid, undramatic first movement but the performance improves dramatically from there, with the adagio flowing at a perfect expansive pace. The finale, bolstered by superb tenor Peter Schreier, excellent choral forces, and a titanic fugue at 12:00, encapsulates joy itself and buries all thoughts of that rather stale beginning.
I quite like my colleague Jens Laurson’s description of Herbert Blomstedt’s role (in the 2008 review linked above) as being almost invisible. He does not impose any personality or agenda of his own on the symphonies; you get the sense that they are ringing out in their natural state, as they should do. Of course, period-practice devotees will point out this isn’t especially true, and I’ll concede the point. There are definitely moments here where the music lacks requisite energy or dramatic abandon. But I’ve found plenty of room in my heart and on my shelf for a wide variety of cycles (Abbado, Barenboim, Blomstedt, Harnoncourt, Hogwood, Immerseel, Karajan, Mackerras) and this deserves its place. For broadly-paced modern-orchestra Beethoven with a luxurious orchestral sound, my top choice is still Barenboim’s with the Staatskapelle Berlin, but that is a more idiosyncratic account. Plus, this is dirt-cheap. If you created a graph plotting price against greatness, Blomstedt’s Beethoven symphonies would fall right in the winner’s corner. On the other hand, if you want your very first Beethoven symphony box set - or know someone who does - my top choice would be Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, the one with the dark red cover, recorded in Rome. It’s not “the best,” but it’s unbeatably consistent, slightly more spirited, and unlike this Blomstedt release, it comes with a booklet.
see also review of Berlin Classics release by Jens Laurson
If you created a graph plotting price against greatness, Blomstedt’s Beethoven symphonies would fall right in the winner’s corner.