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Blu-ray Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Complete Symphonies

  • 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 *
* Myrto Papatanasiu, soprano
* Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano
* Burkhard Fritz, tenor
* Gerald Finley, baritone
* Netherlands Radio Choir
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Iván Fischer
Recorded Live at the Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam May 11, 2013 (#1, 2 & 5); May 31, 2013 (#3 & 4); January 9 & 10, 2014 (#6 & 7); February 20 & 21, 2014 (#8 & 9)
RCO Blu-ray 14108 3Discs 6:21:55 LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from ArkivMusic.comFind it at CD Universe Find it at JPC
Also available on DVD 14109: Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe - JPC

There are many sets of the complete Beethoven symphonies on CD and now a growing number on video. This new set from Iván Fischer on the RCO label must be considered amid excellent competition, which includes the Thielemann/Vienna Philharmonic, and three reviewed by me here – Abbado/Berlin Philharmonic (EuroArts Blu-ray 2057374), Jansons/Bavarian Radio Symphony (Arthaus Musik Blu-ray 107536), and Gielen/SWR Symphony Orchestra (EuroArts DVD 2050637 & 2050667). I'll make some comparisons later on, but first let's look at Fischer's efforts. In the first two symphonies Fischer draws precise and spirited performances from the very excellent Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He is wise enough not to seek out depth and profundities that aren't there in these early symphonies, knowing this is Beethoven evolving his style, working toward a maturity that would blossom in the Third Symphony. Still, Fischer gives the music breadth and a little more weight than is customary while not shortchanging the wit and effervescence in these two works.

In the Eroica Fischer's pacing in the first movement is on the leisurely side if you're going by the stopwatch, but because of his deft use of accents the music doesn't sound slow at all. In a few places he actually seems to almost go over the top with very emphatic accenting, but overall he makes his way with the music work. Though the development section becomes quite intense, it ultimately comes across as more epic and stately in its character than harried or desperate. The second movement Funeral March is paced moderately and played in a fairly straightforward, almost cold fashion, though the second theme (E Flat Major) divulges a sense of warmth and consolation. The atmosphere brightens for a while with the Redemption theme but after the return of the March, Fischer and his forces work up much tension and deliver a potent though slightly restrained climax. The remaining two movements have plenty of energy and convey an epic, all-conquering sense. Overall, while Fischer does not shortchange the angst and tragedy in this symphony, he plays up its heroic character (this is the Eroica, after all) and sense of triumph over adversity. In many ways, this is the template for his view of the other symphonies.

Fischer takes the Fourth Symphony's introduction very slowly and almost haltingly, building suspense so that when the main Allegro section arrives it sounds faster than it actually is and more dramatic too. His pacing is moderate but again accents and sforzandos are deftly employed for greater dramatic effect. The second movement comes off very well here: the main theme has a dreamy, tender quality alright, but moves at a relatively brisk pace for an Adagio, emphatic rhythms eventually imparting an impassioned or even disruptive character to the music. The last two movements are well phrased by Fischer and splendidly played by the RCO.

The Fifth opens with plenty of drama and thrust in the famous motto and its various guises in the exposition and development, with Fischer imparting more a sense of earnestness than grimness to the music, more a philosophical approach than an emotional or supercharged one. The second and third movements are both paced a bit on the deliberate side, but are effective nonetheless because of Fischer's shaping of the score, particularly his deft use once again of accents and his keen sense for instrumental balance. The finale is epic and muscular in its moderate tempos, sounding far less driven and over-the-top than many recent versions. Overall, this is an excellent Fifth, well played and well conceived.

Apart from the third and fourth movements, Fischer's Pastoral Symphony is fairly relaxed, though with plenty of buoyancy and color. Actually, it's pure happiness and playfulness in the first movement, and serenity in the second. The RCO's playing is very elegant and subtle throughout, but again there is a slightly restrained quality even in the festive Peasant Celebration and Storm. Still, there is a hearty character to the celebrations and plenty of punch to the storm. The finale is taken quite slowly and conveys both a sense of serenity and triumph. At about forty-seven minutes this is one of the more broadly paced accounts of the Pastoral Symphony that you're likely to encounter, at least on video. It's well played and imaginatively phrased, but is likely to generate a measure of controversy for its slower tempos and somewhat restrained character.

Fischer adopts the now common practice of taking the introduction in the Seventh's first movement at a lively tempo and he goes on to deliver a spirited though rather muscular account of the main Vivace music. The horns truly ring out in the main theme, and the development section comes on with plenty of power and precision. When the main theme returns there are potent accents from the winds that drive the music forward. The second movement Allegretto is broadly paced, quite unlike most performances today, but the phrasing and execution by the RCO are superb. Those who favor a slower account of this movement will surely like this performance. The Scherzo is paced perfectly to my ears, even if it may not quite go at a true Presto tempo. The trio comes off well too, and the whole movement is simply splendidly played. Ditto for the finale: it has plenty of zip and brims with excitement, triumph and joy. This may be the best performance by Fischer and the RCO in their cycle, though the Ninth is also very compelling.

Of the Eighth Symphony's four movements only the first is paced broadly, as Fischer imparts more weight and muscle to this generally upbeat movement. The development section has a more serious character than in many other performances. Fischer wrings out a measure of angst here, though he still sees the music largely as bright and optimistic. The Allegretto scherzando has plenty of bounce and playfulness and the ensuing Adagio is beautifully played, the strings phrasing the main theme with such sensitivity and joyful serenity. There are weight and muscle to the rapid-fire notes in the main theme of the Allegro vivace finale here, but the movement also effervesces with elegant and spirited playing by the RCO. A fine Eighth.

Mainly because of the broader pacing in the first and third movements, Fischer's Ninth Symphony is on the expansive side compared with most performances today. Still, he effectively imparts tension and drama to the opening panel, making it become a powerful sort of cathartic journey – which it is. Fischer and the RCO capture the many moods of the Scherzo, from its restless and driven contrapuntal main theme to its moments of happy serenity and busy playfulness. The Adagio is simply heavenly, the strings playing the main and alternate themes with such tenderness and feeling. Not that the winds and rest of the orchestra aren't performing at their level – it's just that the strings are given most of the lush moments in this beautiful movement, and they often mesmerize you with their silken tones. The finale is a challenge to conductors because of its unusual structure and healthy measure of bombast. Verdi disparaged its choral writing and other composers expressed various criticisms, including Ludwig Spohr. But Berlioz and many others defended the work. Fischer and his team of first rate soloists and the Netherlands Radio Choir, deliver a moving, utterly thrilling account of this movement: it comes across as the revolutionary music it is, not as a work one can nitpick for flaws. Again, the RCO performs brilliantly.

The camera work, picture clarity and sound reproduction on these three discs are excellent. Now for comparisons… Fischer is somewhat similar to Thielemann in his approach to these symphonies: both employ broader tempos, and both concern themselves with clarity and detail, though Thielemann uses more rubato and other tempo manipulations than Fischer. Thielemann is always interesting and actually quite compelling though he can be a bit eccentric in his interpretations; Abbado is very good, but perhaps a tad fast in places; Gielen is convincing in most ways but his orchestra, good though it is, is not on the level with the others here; and Jansons is very consistent and convincing, somewhat middle of the road in his interpretations. If I had to choose among these, it would come down to Jansons, Thielemann and Fischer. The latter two feature orchestras that are arguably the best in the world, but the Bavarian Radio is hardly less effective. My advice: acquire all three or take a three-headed coin out of your pocket and toss it up! They are that good and we are fortunate to have such fine choices, different as each is from the other. You can't go wrong with Fischer and fans of the RCO will surely choose this set.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings