Beethoven: Symphonies (CD review)

Symphonies Nos. 1-9. Christian Thielemann, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony Classical 88697927172 (7-disc set).

Let me make it clear at the outset that I don't usually recommend complete sets of anything by a single conductor and orchestra. No one set can include the best-possible recording of every work. Therefore, it is a much better idea to collect individual recordings by separate artists. That said, if it's a complete set of the nine Beethoven symphonies you're really after, there are already any number of good choices from conductors like Bohm (DG), Jochum (Philips and DG), Zinman (Arte Nova), Bernstein (Sony and DG), Klemperer (EMI), Walter (Sony), Abbado (DG), Norrington (EMI/Virgin), Karajan (DG), Solti (Decca), Muti (EMI), Harnoncourt (Warner), Wand (RCA), Rattle (EMI), Herreweghe (PentaTone), Gardiner (DG Archiv), Hogwood (Decca), Pletnev (DG), and many others, even a recent addition from Chailly (Decca).

So where does that leave this new Sony entry from Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic? The fact is, it has its ups and downs like all the rest; just a few more downs than ups.

The first thing I noticed about the Thielemann set was the packaging. It is so attractive, one cannot overlook it. The folks at Sony have transferred Thielemann's nine performances to six CD's and then include a bonus DVD, all done up in a beautiful boxed album. In this case, it's a real album, too. If you're old enough to remember back to the days of 78's, before long-playing (LP) records, it would sometimes necessitate two or three 78's to encompass a single performance; as a consequence, record companies would insert them into individual sleeves within a hardcover "album." Well, that's what the Sony people have done here: They give us a hardcover album with bound pages of text and pictures and then sleeves for each of the discs. Sony beautifully wraps the album in cloth and further encloses it in a sturdy cardboard slipcover, also cloth wrapped. It is, as I say, most impressive.

The next thing I did before listening to the music was to watch the DVD, a kind of promotional documentary, forty-four minutes long and called "Making van Beethoven," where we not only get to see Thielemann rehearsing and conducting in concert but listen to him and others explain their goals in recording the symphonies. The documentary is in widescreen, 1.78:1, and comes in two spoken languages--German and English. In the doc, the chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic tells us that since the orchestra has undergone a big turnover in personnel in the past decade or so, this was "an ideal time to make a new recording of the Beethoven cycle." Thielemann says he tried to incorporate period techniques, informed historical performances, and a whole lot of improvisation to make the music come alive like never before, "to give birth to it anew." Above all, he says, one must never slavishly observe Beethoven's tempo marks to the letter; one must "interpret." Fair enough.

Then I proceeded to the music, to which I spent the better part of a week listening. Should I start with the bad news? Sony recorded the symphonies live at the Goldener Saal der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna from December 2008 through April 2010. What's so bad about that, you ask? The "live" part. I have only heard a handful of live recordings I've ever liked, and this collection is not one of them. I know that most of the major record companies are doing it, and they always justify it by saying that live recordings are more "spontaneous" sounding, more electric, than studio or hall recordings without an audience. However, the cynic in me says they're doing it because it's cheaper to record live, the audience essentially subsidizing the production. To be clear, Sony originally recorded these performances live for reproduction via Blu-ray, so I suppose the images of the audience are, indeed, important. Whatever, the sound tends to vary from good to average, from close-up to slightly distant, vague, and veiled. And no matter how hard they try, the audience can never be entirely quiet. At least Sony spare us any applause.

Now, to the music. On disc number one we find Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, where for all of Thielemann's talk about wanting to invent the symphonies anew, the interpretations sounded suspiciously conventional to me. There is nothing at all wrong with them, understand, and the Vienna players are extraordinary, the ensemble among the finest in the world; the readings simply don't have any additional spark in them that I haven't heard before in any of the other recordings listed above. It's true, though, that Thielemann puts a bubbly bounce in his step for the finale of No. 1; he makes the Larghetto of No. 2 seem particularly lovely; and he works up a good head of steam in the closing Allegro molto. It's just that, overall, these new renditions don't really surpass anything already available.

Moving on, we get the Symphony No. 3 "Eroica," that grand, dauntless work that was evermore to change the way the Western world looked at music. After experiencing some minor disappointment with Nos. 1 and 2, I enjoyed Thielemann's rendering of No. 3 a little better. However, my enjoyment only came in the second half. The first two movements seemed rather routine, the funeral march positively...funereal, with little compensating control of tension. To the conductor's credit, the Scherzo shows more zip, and the Finale brims over with heroic yet lyrical power. The sound could have had a greater range and impact, however; it's merely OK without being exceptionally lifelike or transparent.

On the third CD we find Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5, and again we face erratic readings. Thielemann's Fourth has to be among the slowest on record, and as in the first three symphonies, his enthusiasm comes and goes in spurts, making the music a series of starts and stops. Moreover, he appears to apply a heavy hand even to the lightest moments. The sound here didn't help, either, as it appeared a bit duller and more distant than in the previous recordings.

Then I came to the Fifth, and it delighted me that Thielemann seemed more energized than he had been before. Maybe the performance doesn't crackle the way Carlos Kleiber's version does, yet it shows a lot of spunk; and only in the lead-in to the final Allegro does it actually drag. Fortunately, it goes out in high style. While the sound is a tad more hollow and veiled here than in the previous recordings, it has a stronger impact. Still, there is not the kind of midrange clarity I'd liked to have heard.

Another day, another symphony. By day three I was up to disc four, Symphony No. 6, the "Pastoral Symphony," and hoping for the best. Certainly, there are few other more genial, cordial, smiling, or happy symphonies than this one, so it's hard for any conductor to do it much harm. Again, Thielemann takes some of the slowest tempos I've ever heard, although this time the leisurely pace doesn't really hurt anything, emphasizing as it does the music's lyrical qualities. However, it doesn't exactly help the cheerfulness of the music, either. The Scherzo does come off with a certain panache missing elsewhere, and the storm is properly menacing. Yet the ensuing "Shepherd's Hymn" hasn't all of the "thankful feelings" it needs; rather, it simply sounds peaceful, without the accompanying note of intense gratitude. Compare Walter, Bohm, Reiner, Jochum, Klemperer, or Zinman and you'll hear what I mean. On the brighter side, in terms of sound this one appears to capture a greater stereo spread and a better stage depth than the Thielemann recordings that precede it in the series. What's more, the sound is smoother and a tad more open than the others.

Compact disc five contains the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Frankly, by this time I didn't have high hopes for either of them; I doubted that Thielemann was about to change his quiet, calm, collected demeanor even for the inspired dance rhythms of the Seventh. Imagine my surprise, then, when Thielemann came through in No. 7 with one of the highlights of the set. While it doesn't quite burst forth with as much passion as I'd have liked, it's close enough. The second-movement procession moves along commendably; the Scherzo is festive and buoyant, though a touch too weighty; and the final movement displays an abundance of forward drive. Happily, the orchestral sound is cleaner and more robust than before, too. It would have been an entirely felicitous combination all the way around if only the audience were quieter.

Although Symphony No. 8 is one of Beethoven's most effervescent creations, it takes Thielemann a while to let all the bubbles flow freely. The opening tune is not quite as exuberant as it could be; nonetheless, from there on the work assumes the disarmingly cheerful attitude we have come to expect of it. The third-movement Minuet is stately in the grand manner, setting up a needed contrast with the vigor of the closing movement, which is perhaps more vigorous here than it is jovial or laughing. As in the Seventh, the sound is clean and open, with the audience noticeable between movements.

Finally, we come to the jewel in the crown, the mighty Ninth Symphony, the "Choral" Symphony, and like everything else in the set, it's a mixed bag. As usual for Thielemann, he begins slowly and builds even slower. The opening Allegro appears to go on forever, never quite catching fire except in isolated pockets in more stop-and-go pacing that robs the music of its flowing pulse. Even in the second-movement, marked Molto vivace (very quick and lively), the conductor seems hesitant to let loose, bordering on sluggish at times. Worse, there is very little bounce, sparkle, or lilt in his step, Thielemann content to plod through it. The only place in the symphony where the conductor's wary approach works well is in the Adagio, which benefits from his broad tempos and comes off all the lovelier for it.

And the big choral finale? Here, it isn't so much a matter of slow tempos as it is a general lack of pizzazz that hinders the performance. The mounting tension does work well, though, and the ultimate releases of pressure are gratifying. Thielemann also observes dynamic contrasts nicely, and his singers perform well for him. So, even though it's not a razzmatazz finish, it is more than competent. Still, it's not something I would consider a primary recommendation in the work, especially not with such ordinary sound--wide but somewhat flat, lacking much dimensionality and slightly veiled and congested.

It's kind of odd that when you watch the DVD and see Thielemann talking, rehearsing, and conducting in so animated and energetic a manner, you think you're about to hear interpretations that will revolutionize the way people view the Beethoven symphonies forevermore. Yet when you hear the works in completed form, Thielemann's readings seem almost old-fashioned, often lacking in drive and momentum, more concerned with atmosphere and mood and creating pockets of excitement than in anything lasting or satisfying.

Dedicated Thielemann fans and Beethoven completists will definitely want the set. Other potential buyers might consider investigating it thoroughly before investing.


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