The only regret I have regarding these Beethoven discs is that I unaccountably neglected to order the first one in the set containing the first three symphonies. The last six here are spread over two discs, with #4, 5 and 6 on the second and the last three on the third. All performances are excellent – that's why I regret the omission noted above, for in all likelihood I passed up an excellent Eroica, not to mention the First and Second. (I get these review discs free of charge, of course – not very smart on my part, huh?)
The SWR Symphony Orchestra, based in Baden-Baden and Freiburg, has had a long relationship with Michael Gielen, who led the ensemble from 1986 to 1999. This underrated conductor made recordings for Vox with the group that date back to the 1950s, recordings that included the Schoenberg Piano Concerto (with the young Alfred Brendel) and Violin Concerto (with a soloist whose name slips my mind). Recently Gielen has been recording a lot of Mahler and Bruckner with the orchestra for the Hänssler Classic label, and reviews have been very positive.
Gielen's Beethoven here is splendid and the SWR Orchestra play the music for him like a world-class ensemble. (I wouldn't argue with anyone who claimed they are indeed world-class.) I particularly like the generally brisk tempos and the forceful, lean approach taken in these monumental works. The Seventh is one of the better readings: listen to the brusque but spirited treatment given to sustained chords by the strings in the introduction and to the fine brass playing throughout. In general, there is a more staccato-like approach in the symphonies here, quite the opposite of the famous Karajan legato manner, a style which prompted many to refer to it as 'chocolate Beethoven'.
The first movement of Gielen's Eighth is perhaps pushed a little too hard, but I like it still, the music taking on a tension one rarely notices in other performances. In the end, I have to rank this as one of the finest Eighths I have ever encountered.
Contrary to his general approach, Gielen's Ninth's Scherzo has a very relaxed tempo, but it works nevertheless. The Finale is superb, featuring splendid singing by the chorus and the quartet of soloists. I particularly liked the bass Hanno Müller-Brachmann. Overall, this is a truly splendid Ninth, despite the audience's tepid reaction.
As for the performances on the other disc – again, all are very good, with much the same driven, spirited approach. Gielen avoids the temptation to take the Fourth's first movement at too fast a tempo, as did William Steinberg, Christoph von Dohnányi, and several others. The Adagio is briskly played, and that is a good trait here, and the finale is given a near-perfect rendering. The Fifth brims with drama throughout and features an absolutely glorious finale. The Sixth is also excellent, and offers one of the briskest first movements, I've ever heard. But that is all to the good in this symphony, a work, I must confess, that I'm less taken by, perhaps Beethoven's least compelling mature symphony.
Claudio Abbado's cycle of Beethoven Symphonies on DVD has recently been issued, some of which I reviewed here. From what I heard of it, it is good, but the Berlin Philharmonic doesn't display much of an edge over the underrated SWR Symphony Orchestra, and Gielen is as convincing an interpreter in these works as almost anyone. Camera work and production values in general are excellent. For the record, the Fifth and Sixth were recorded in December, 1997; the Seventh in June, 1998; the Ninth in July, 1999; and the Fourth and Eighth in January, 2000. All were recorded in performance at the Freiburg Concert Hall.
There have been many fine Beethoven cycles on CD and LP, of course, including efforts by Toscanini, Jochum, Szell, Harnoncourt, Abbado, and several others. In the leaner DVD realm, competition is still fierce, but this effort on EuroArts must be counted at least among the very best. Again, I regret I didn't get this entire cycle, but these two discs can be given the highest recommendations.
Copyright © 2005, Robert Cummings