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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

DGG 429036

The Nine Symphonies

  • Symphony #1 in C Major, Op. 21
  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 36
  • Symphony #3 "Eroica" in E Flat Major, Op. 55
  • Symphony #4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60
  • Symphony #5 in C minor, Op. 67
  • Symphony #6 "Pastoral" in F Major, Op. 68
  • Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92
  • Symphony #8 in F Major, Op. 93
  • Symphony #9 "Choral" in D minor, Op. 125 *
* Gundula Janowitz, soprano
* Hilde Rossel-Majdan, contralto
* Waldemar Kmentt, tenor
* Walter Berry, baritone
* Vienna Singverein
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Deutsche Grammophon 429036-2 5CDs
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Also available on 5SACDs 474600-2: Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe - HBDirect - JPC

Despite the fact there are better choices for complete sets, on this same label, in fact, this is the best-selling Beethoven set of all time. Frankly, this makes sense. It's one of the most easily accessible sets to buy, is constantly on sale, and fits most people's conception of classical music. Absolutely beautiful sound dominates the picture, and there are no shocks here.

That might be why there are better cycles out there. Szell's cycle a few years later is more razor sharp, and Bohm and Bernstein in Vienna offer more balanced cycles, also on DG. Still, Karajan's conceptions are incredibly valid. Having not heard these performances since 2005, it was a joy to revisit them.

The first, second, and fourth symphonies were largely ignored by my then 17-year-old self. In fact, my focus was then on the fifth, sixth, and ninth, so when I lost these discs, I had yet to explore my love of Beethoven as it is today. After almost five years, it was hard to look at this cycle without a raised eyebrow. A lot of complete cycles have a strong range of tempo extremes or emphasis on orchestral sections. Not here. Karajan rides outstanding playing and an admirable forward pulse to keep the music moving. This leads to a pretty exciting "Eroica" and fifth, and a tremendously played and sung ninth.

However, slower, darker cycles at the time unveil more detail. Karajan's sixth was always a rushed and unhappy affair, and is here. Slow movements sometimes lack weight, brass get smothered by strings, and the sonic balances are just odd. If you love Karajan, invest well, but this is no longer the benchmark for Beethoven.

Copyright © 2012, Brian Wigman

Trumpet