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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

DGG 4797708


  • Symphony #1 in C Major, Op. 21
  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 36
  • Symphony #3 in E Flat Major "Eroica", Op. 55
  • Symphony #4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60
  • Symphony #5 in C minor, Op. 67
  • Symphony #6 in F Major "Pastoral", Op. 68
  • Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92
  • Symphony #8 in F Major, Op. 93
  • Symphony #9 in D minor "Choral", Op. 125
  • Gwyneth Jones, soprano
  • Hanna Schwarz, alto
  • René Kollo, tenor
  • Kurt Moll, bass
  • Chorus of the Vienna State Opera
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
Live Recordings 1978-1981
Deutsche Grammophon 4797708 5CD + Blu-Ray Audio
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Here on five well-restored standard discs and one Blu-ray are Leonard Bernstein's classic Deutsche Grammophon Beethoven performances. Universal just released Bernstein's complete recordings for the label not long ago, (followed by the complete albums for the entire united label group) and I can't speak to any sonic improvements there, but I can say that these present discs certainly sound better than the late 80's CD releases and original box set that I reviewed early in my career at Classical Net. Ditto for the oddly shaped "Collectors [sic] Edition" boxes that DG put on the market at random intervals (which I also know from rentals), to say nothing of the Panorama twofer and "Conductors and Orchestras" box issue of the Ninth – the last of these just a few months ago. Frankly, these performances didn't need a lot of help sonically, but the audible improvements do help us to appreciate this cycle anew. Whether they justify buying this booklet-style set to compliment versions you already have is a question that only you can answer, but I'm satisfied so far. One big carp: Would it have killed Universal to include the excellent overture disc, too? Those haven't been released with the cycle outside of mega boxes in years, and they could have used the same care of restoration shown here. If you don't own those performances, I suggest those too. If sonic considerations don't interest you, the 6-disc box which includes said overtures will still suffice, though this certainly is a nicer presentation and kinder to limited shelf space.

To both summarize and amend my original review, these are beautifully played and carefully considered performances that easily merit repeated listening. I maintain a slight preference for Lenny's brighter and brasher New York First and Second (now selling for next to nothing in the context of Bernstein's very different but similarly excellent Columbia cycle), while the same could be said to a lesser degree about the Third, Four, and Eighth. I find both of Bernstein's Fifths to be too much about Bernstein and not enough about Beethoven, but you can't argue there's any lack of personality. From these interpretations there is little to choose from, and it boils down to orchestral sound. The Vienna "Pastoral' is audibly superior in terms of tonal beauty to the earlier version and reveals a deeper identification with the work (especially in the first few movements) all around. Of the three Bernstein Sevenths I have heard (there is a second version on Sony that's frustratingly elusive), this is my favorite, and leagues ahead of the labored Boston version from the conductor's final concert, also on Deutsche Grammophon.

The cycle is crowed with a stunning Ninth, here sounding more persuasive than ever. The solo singing and choral contributions run rings around the earlier Columbia record, and Bernstein's (relatively) healthier self similarly outstrips his later effort at the Berlin Wall "Ode to Freedom" concert. This last item remains historically important and a last document of Bernstein on film, but on musical grounds I see no reason it should receive more attention than this Vienna version. To my ears, the rather rough and tumble singing of the Vienna State Opera Chorus is a hair more blended in this latest re-master without sacrificing any gusto. Throughout the entire cycle, Bernstein is energetic and manages to impose his will on the Philharmonic in a way that few others have been able to. The result is a deeply personal but altogether musical experience that's now being offered to the audiophile at a reasonable price. Sure, you still need a second set (or single disc) for the Overtures, which is of course dumbs as rocks. However, I'm unable to deny a recommendation based on that alone. If you somehow missed these performances the third and fourth time around, now's your chance.

Copyright © 2018, Brian Wigman