The series of concerts by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra comprising this cycle of Beethoven symphonies took place on tour in 2012 at Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Japan, on November 26 (Symphonies 4 & 3), Nov. 27 (1, 2 & 5), Nov. 30 (6 & 7), and December 1 (8 & 9). There were reportedly some "patch sessions" that took place after the concerts to edit out anything that conductor Mariss Jansons did not approve of in the performances. I can't say that I noticed any edits, as everything flowed seamlessly along. I should digress briefly for a note about Jansons: he is not only conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra here, a group generally regarded as among the finest ensembles in the world, but also music director of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, widely regarded as among the top two or three orchestras in the world. How many conductors can you name from any period who have simultaneously held two such prestigious posts?
What is my overall impression of this cycle? It is splendid, superb actually. For Beethoven traditionalists – I don't mean historic performance advocates as modern instruments are used here – it may well be THE video cycle to purchase because of the consistency of approach and superior execution. Tempos are judicious, instrumental balances are impeccable, playing is accurate and spirited, and the singing in the Ninth Symphony is beautiful and totally committed. Jansons does not inject a personal style on the music: he gives you pure Beethoven – not over-the-top Beethoven, not eccentric Beethoven, and not Beethoven interpreted according to some new truth sourced in a recently discovered "authentic" manuscript. In other words, he doesn't attempt to offer a revelatory approach, but rather chooses to let the music speak for itself.
Like many conductors today, Jansons generally chooses fairly brisk but never overly fast tempos. In addition, he maintains a fairly steady pulse, with few tempo shifts in mid-stream or abrupt and unexpected changes in dynamics. Yet, he is never bland or uninvolving, but always makes the music exciting, consistently infusing it with passion and spirit.
Jansons conducts the first two symphonies with a sense they are youthful works by a composer whose musical depth was still developing. Wisely, there's no searching for angst or profundity that isn't there. Both performances are excellent in their precision and lively spirit: try the finale of #1 or the last two movements of #2 to sample the collective virtuosity of this fine orchestra. The strings are especially outstanding in these movements.
The Eroica is played with quite brisk tempos and comes across with a muscular sound, the music having a truly heroic character in its crisp attacks and powerful sonorities. The first movement development section crackles with both energy and tension. The Funeral March moves with an inexorable and relatively fleet tread. This is among the most stately and convincing accounts I've ever heard of this movement. The Scherzo brims with wit, defiance and triumph, while the finale builds from nonchalance in the pizzicato playing of the main theme at the outset to ultimate triumph in the latter half. A splendid performance all around!
Good performances of the Fourth show the work to be nearly on the same level of the Fifth and Seventh. Jansons delivers a totally convincing one toward that end: the first movement introduction brims with mystery and expectation and when the main theme is played it bristles with energy and joy. Again, there is a muscular sound to the sonorities, a feature that works well in showing that this isn't the kind of happy music one associates with fluff or lightness, but rather with life-affirming triumph. The whole symphony exudes a sense of confidence, both in the assured playing by the orchestra and in Jansons' spirited shaping of the score.
The Fifth is also quite fine, but perhaps not of outstanding quality. The opening movement is filled with anxiety and drive alright, but sounds somewhat scaled down, lacking a tad in impact and weight. The middle movements go quite well and the finale is an all-out great performance. The Haydn encore, which follows the Fifth Symphony, is nicely played. Some might think it's an odd choice: lasting a little over three minutes, the music is very subdued and serene, unlike the rousing work which precedes it. But then, you can regard it as the perfect piece for contrast.
The Sixth Symphony is a stunning performance here. Over the years, I've come to believe this symphony was not in the same class with the better even-numbered symphonies, namely the Fourth and Eighth. Well, Jansons delivers a performance with essential details seemingly chiseled to perfection. The first movement has energy and playful bounce, and truly evokes images of the country. Just as crucially, Jansons effectively conveys the sense of serenity and peace in the second movement, without making it seem overlong or repetitious. With brisk tempos, deft accenting, and all imaginable gradations of dynamics, the music comes across with irresistible bucolic character. The peasant celebration is joyous and characterful and the storm has real impact. The finale comes across with a mesmerizing beauty to triumphantly crown this splendidly joyful performance.
The Seventh is hardly less successful. Jansons begins with a brisk Introduction, a common practice today among major conductors. When the Vivace main theme begins, the orchestra plays with energy, bounce and exuberance, despite relatively moderate pacing. In fact, a faster tempo would work against the idea of Beethoven's "apotheosis of the dance." The second movement, also moderately paced, works just fine here, though a perhaps a slightly faster tempo – it is marked Allegretto – would suit things a bit better. The remaining movements are also very convincing, especially the effervescent and ecstatic finale.
The Eighth has a good measure of gravitas in this performance. Accents are weighty and crisp in the first movement, but the mood remains sunny despite the conflict that arises in the development section. Even the playful second movement exhibits a forcefulness at times in its busy character, but that is all to the good, as Beethoven's humor typically has a gruff side to it. The ensuing movement is just fine and the finale is splendid: it begins very quietly and a bit restrained but then comes on with a sudden hearty jollity wherein much inner detail emerges to delightful effect.
Jansons' Ninth Symphony may well be the best performance of the work I have ever heard. Oh, you could find somewhat better vocal soloists, I suppose, or perhaps a marginally better played version. But on the whole I would opt for this performance of the Ninth for the sheer vitality and consistency of the reading. For once, the third movement doesn't sound overlong or too ponderous, and the finale comes across with less garishness than is usual. I must confess that this movement has always struck me as a bit bombastic and somewhat episodic. Verdi deplored the structure of the finale, though he loved the first three movements. In Jansons' hands the brisk tempos and intelligent phrasing yield a greater sense of coherence and drama than what one usually encounters. The whole symphony unfolds convincingly from first note to last.
The camera work is absolutely excellent throughout all performances and the sound reproduction vivid and powerful, fully state-of-the-art. So the question is, how does this cycle match up against the other video sets in the catalogue? Earlier this year I reviewed the Abbado/Berlin effort on EuroArts Blu-ray 2057374), wherein I also made comparison with the Thielemann/Vienna Philharmonic set on Unitel Classica/C Major 707204. Also, back in 2005 I reviewed most of the SWR Symphony Orchestra/Michael Gielen cycle on EuroArts DVDs 2050637 & 2050667. If I had to choose among these, I can only say the choice would be painful to make. But if I can judge from the six symphonies I heard in the Gielen set, I would rule it out, not because it is inferior in any substantial way, but because his orchestra is not quite world class, not quite in the same category with the Berlin, Vienna and Bavarian Radio (Munich) orchestras. I would have to give a slight preference to Jansons and Thielemann. So here's the verdict: Thielemann can be a little eccentric in his tempo shifts, although he is always interesting; Jansons is more mainstream, more traditional and nearly always convincing. If I were going to a desert island and had to take but one set, I would opt for Jansons by a hair, but wouldn't be happy leaving Thielemann behind.
I should mention that there is a forty-three minute special feature on disc 1 entitled Mariss Jansons Rehearses Beethoven. It shows the maestro in rehearsal of the Beethoven Symphony #3, which he says is his favorite of the nine. This bonus segment also features commentary by Jansons and members of the orchestra. It is quite revealing as it shows how Jansons works through the score and painstakingly shapes even the minutest details to his design. One final note… As I watched these performances it felt a little strange when the camera angle allowed for an occasional glimpse of the audience, some of whose members were wearing white face masks for breathing purposes. It's not an uncommon sight in Japan, but is there still a lingering fear of fallout from the Fukushima nuclear accident in March, 2011? Probably so.
Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings