Here is a very solid set of the Beethoven symphonies that might just be counted as a contender with many of the leading recorded cycles. Certainly among budget sets, it would have to be given high priority. The sound reproduction is very powerful and quite vivid, if a little bright. Overall, the sonics are excellent for the period of the recordings (1975-1980). But it is the spirited performances that raise this set above the level of so many others. Many listeners and concertgoers today forget that the Dresden State Orchestra was considered among the finest ensembles behind that once feared Iron Curtain. Perhaps only the Leningrad Philharmonic was then a serious rival. So here we have American-born Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt, who served as chief conductor of the Dresden State Orchestra from 1975-1985, leading this ensemble at the Dresden Lukaskirche in one spirited and splendidly-conceived performance after another.
I especially liked the early symphonies here, #1 & 2. The First brims with energy without ever sounding hurried. More than a few conductors push things along here to the detriment of the music, but Blomstedt seems always to find the right tempo, and his orchestra follows his lead with accuracy and commitment. The Second also gets a fine performance with judicious tempos and fine playing.
Blomstedt's "Eroica" is comparatively relaxed when you consider his first movement clocks in at 15:02, and that's without the repeat. While it is well played throughout and a solid reading overall, some listeners used to the more modern efforts by Abbado, Harnoncourt and others, may find the Third on the tame side. That said, I liked it and could return to this performance many more times. The Fourth is another fine performance that, once more, features fairly moderate, well-chosen tempos and splendid, spirited playing by the Dresden musicians. I think that perhaps only the finale might have been better served by a slightly faster tempo.
Some have found the Fifth here a bit on the relaxed side as well. It is a muscular reading, with the first movement having a less driven, less intense character. Actually, that description applies to the overall approach to the work by Blomstedt, but it is still a quite viable, brilliantly played rendition of this warhorse. The Sixth is one Beethoven symphony that could benefit from a slightly relaxed approach and here Blomstedt's more measured manner works nicely. In fact, this "Pastoral" is truly pastoral in mood, with lovely first and second movements and joyous merry-making in the third. The ensuing storm comes on with plenty of power and urgency, so much so that you feel yourself wanting to take shelter from the thunder and lightning. The closing movement sings out beautifully to cap one of the finest renditions of this symphony on record.
The Seventh features tempos quite standard for late-1970s performances: the first movement introduction is played rather deliberately and the second movement is slow and dark, but quite atmospheric and effective. The last two movements are played with plenty of spirit, with the finale displaying a truly heroic and triumphant character. The Eighth is bright and cheery, although the first movement is moderately-paced and somewhat muscular in style, Blomstedt capturing both the heroic and humorous character of the music. The second movement is pretty briskly paced and brilliantly performed, while the Third is delightful in its playfulness, but features an overly prominent bassoon. The finale is fiery and fully convincing.
The Ninth features a powerful and epic first movement, with the Dresden players exhibiting their typical polish and accuracy. The Scherzo is driven and nervous, but again with power and a heroic sense. The third movement Adagio is nicely phrased by Blomstedt to yield one of the more beautifully played accounts of this lovely music. Some reviewers were slightly disappointed with the soloists in the finale, but I found them more than adequate and the playing and interpretation by Blomstedt totally convincing.
I have reviewed probably a half-dozen or more Beethoven symphony cycles in the last decade or so and can opine that this one by Blomstedt is probably among the better ones. It shares something in spirit at least with the Kurt Masur set on Pentatone, which coincidentally also featured an East German orchestra (the Leipzig Gewandhaus), from the 1970s. In sum, as a budget offering of the Beethoven symphonies, this effort by Herbert Blomstedt and the Dresden State Orchestra is well worth your attention.
Copyright © 2012, Robert Cummings