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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Symphonies
Symphony No. 1 in C major Op. 21 [24:42]
Symphony No. 2 in D major Op. 36 [32:18]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major Op. 55 [44:28]
Symphony No. 4 in [32:22]
Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. [31:05]
Symphony No. 6 in F Op. [42:41]
Symphony No. 7 in A major Op. 92 [40:24]
Symphony No. 8 in F major Op. 93 [24:29]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor Op. 125 [64:52]
Renate Behle (soprano); Yvonne Naef (alto); Glenn Winslade (tenor); Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Michael Gielen
rec. live, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, February 2000 (Nos. 1, 3), Konzerthaus Freiburg, December 1997 (Nos. 5, 6), June 1998 (Nos. 2, 7), July 1999 (No. 9) January 2000 (Nos. 4, 8)
EUROARTS 2050558 [3 DVDs: 110:00 + 114:00 + 141:00]

It is refreshing to have a complete Beethoven symphony cycle from a conductor of immense experience and skill but one who is not generally known as a specialist in this repertoire. In recent years Gielen’s Mahler recordings have been widely praised but for many years he was perhaps better known for his tenacious and devoted efforts in respect of twentieth century works. As a pianist he played the complete piano works of Schoenberg, and as conductor he directed the first performances of works by Stockhausen, Henze, Pousseur, Ligeti and Zimmermann. He has been recording since at least the 1950s when his Vox recordings with such artists as Alfred Brendel gained considerable renown.
These recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies took place over several years but all are with one of the two SWR orchestras. They have been available previously as separate DVDs and as CDs but this is the first time I have heard them. To summarise my reaction, they are in every way worth hearing. Whilst there is nothing flashy or of novelty for its own sake about these performances they are imaginative, coherent and well considered. Internal balance is superbly well controlled so that the listener is constantly amazed at just how much they have missed in other performances. At the same time the sheer physical excitement of the contributions of the trumpets and timpani is well conveyed without being allowed excessively to dominate the proceedings. Speeds tend to be swift, although not unusually so for nowadays, and repeats are generously observed. Throughout there is a contradictory but very satisfactory impression that Michael Gielen knows every note of the scores and at the same time is discovering more in them. He has a real feeling for their overall structure as well as for their detail, in particular in respect of dynamics. The orchestra play superbly throughout, with the woodwind principals phrasing with real imagination.
The sound of the set is satisfactory without being remarkable. The conductor’s gestures are clearly intended for the orchestra rather than the public and there is little obvious benefit in being able to see as well as hear these performances. Perhaps that accounts for the bizarre choices of subject and camera angles for much of the time. Surely most viewers would want to see the conductor at the start of the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies rather than a very small and not well chosen part of the orchestra. The restless changes from one camera to another do at times smack of desperation. At the same time it does mean that the individual players start to seem like old friends by the time you have finished the set. You sympathise with the piccolo player in her brief appearances in the Fifth, Sixth and Ninth Symphonies where she has such a long wait before, and sometimes after, playing, and you note how even using the same bowing string players at the same desk can make such very different movements. This is very human but none of it really matters, and I suspect that when (not if) I return to this set it will be to listen only not to watch.
Not everything here is perfect. The first movement of the Eroica does tend slightly towards the matter of fact and elsewhere there are occasional moments when the temperature drops. Against this can be set a Ninth which ends with a finale delivered with stunning conviction by a chorus singing enthusiastically from memory; the soloists match the enthusiasm but all sing from scores. All in all this is a set impressive for its understanding, honesty and conviction which most certainly deserves a place in the catalogues.  

John Sheppard

see also reviews of individual releases: Symphonies 1-3 ~~ 4-6 ~~ 7-9

Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphonies