Abbado first recorded the Beethoven nine symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1986-87 and they were issued on DG, in a 5-CD album. In 1999 and 2000 Abbado recorded the cycle again for Deutsche Grammophon, but with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the ensemble he then led as music director. I have that set of CDs and have found it among the finest cycles of the Beethoven symphonies.
This EuroArts cycle of Beethoven symphonies was originally issued on DVD in 2004. I reviewed Symphonies 1, 6 & 8 from that set later that year here at Classical Net (TDK DVD 105116), finding the performances excellent and in good sound. Now the cycle finds its way to Blu-ray and with quite pleasing results. Except for Symphony #9, the performances were derived from live February, 2001 concerts at the Accademia di Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. #9 was recorded live in May, 2000 at the Berlin Philharmonie. Thus this video set and the DG cycle on CD were recorded within about a two-year time span. Tempos in the two cycles are generally brisk and almost identical, and the playing by the Berliners is accurate and fully commited in both instances. You could call this EuroArts set the video twin of the DG CDs. Even the singers in the Ninth Symphony are almost the same, with Thomas Quasthoff being replaced by Eike Wilm Schulte as bass-baritone for the video set. I haven't heard Abbado's Vienna Philharmonic cycle but, knowing his work, I would guess his tempos are a little slower there but the interpretations and playing to be excellent.
As I have grown older I have learned to appreciate the Symphonies #1 and 2 much more, but have become a little less fond of #6 because of its repetitious character, particularly in movements 1, 2 and 5. Here Abbado and company deliver fine performances of both early symphonies. I found #2 especially spirited in the first and last movements: the Berliners really turn in virtuosic work in the closing pages. The Third Symphony is crisp and energetic in the faster movements and the Funeral March second movement is grim and weighty, without ever sounding sluggish.
The Fourth brims with energy and sounds more muscular and epic than in many readings. Abbado's Fifth is tense and driven and highly detailed in the first movement, setting the stage for what must be counted among the finest recorded performances of this warhorse in recent times. The Sixth is also quite excellent here, as Abbado points up the pastoral character with a deft sense for fluency and serenity. The festive third movement and the Storm are splendidly played and the finale exudes plentiful good cheer and thankfulness. The Seventh features a brisk introduction, which is common in this work now, and the whole symphony is as rhythmic and vivacious a performance as you could want. I should also mention that Abbado wisely conducts the second movement with a true Allegretto pacing. The Eighth is bright and chipper but, like the Fourth, also muscular and weighty, especially in the outer movements.
Abbado's Ninth is excellent, with very brisk tempos (you can't go by the timings given in the booklet though, since they include applause and curtain calls at the end of each symphony) and fine playing by the Berliners. The singers in the finale are also splendid. Violetta Urmana sings quite well and surprisingly she began taking on soprano roles on the operatic stage with great success shortly after this performance, debuting at the 2001 Bayreuth Festival as Sieglinde in Die Walkure. Oddly, Abbado recorded another Beethoven Ninth with the Berlin Philharmonic for Sony at the 1996 Salzburg Easter Festival, and the interpretation, an effective one to be sure, was a bit different from both later efforts, featuring slightly slower tempos in all four movements.
The symphonies in this EuroArts set are not presented chronologically or necessarily in ascending order on the four discs, but and are coupled thusly: #6, 1 and 8 are on disc 1; #2 and 5 share the second disc; #9 and 3 come on the third; and #4 and 7 are on the final disc.
Among other video recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, there are the Michael Gielen/SWR Symphony Orchestra cycle (EuroArts 2050637 & 2050667) and the very excellent Christian Thielemann/Vienna Philharmonic on C Major. I reviewed all but the first three symphonies in Michael Gielen's Beethoven symphony cycle, and if I can judge his cycle from the other six performances, I can say his set is fine but the orchestra is not quite in the league with the Vienna Philharmonic or Berlin Philharmonic. Thielemann's nine features slower pacing than Abbado's as well as lots of rubato – accerlerandos here, ritardandos there, etc. Some might regard Thielemann as a bit eccentric, but he is very convincing in his tempo manipulations and overall phrasing, and the orchestra plays with all-out spirit and is generally note-perfect. However, Abbado's Berliners collectively can challenge any orchestra for virtuosity and commitment. They played well under Karajan too of course, but his Beethoven, with its excessive legato, was hard to take and less effective than cycles by Jochum, Szell, Toscannini, Harnoncourt and maybe even Masur, Blomstedt and Ansermet. At any rate, those wanting a Blu-ray set of the Beethoven symphonies can choose between this vital, spirited and well played Abbado cycle or the adventurous and always interesting Thielemann effort. I would give a slight edge to the Thielemann in sound reproduction, but the Abbado has the advantage of offering an optional camera view of the performances of symphonies 3, 5, 6 and 7: you can choose to see the concert via the so-called "conductor camera," which is trained on Abbado, either closeup or from a distance. It thus offers a different perspective and for some viewers will be an added bonus that could tilt the scales in favor of Abbado. Your move.
Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings