There were at least three of these two-disc sets released around 2008 to repackage Dohnanyi's Cleveland Beethoven cycle in a more beginner-friendly and economical fashion. This particular release holds arguably the two finest performances from that set, along with a smashing overture from Leonore. This particular set has suffered by no fault of its own; it isn't conducted by George Szell. Since Dohnanyi himself has been quoted as saying that his predecessors' cycle is "the bible" of Beethoven, one might have wondered what Telarc was doing when they embarked on a second set in Cleveland. They need not have worried.
The performances are superb. Szell's recordings are benchmarks, to be sure, but these fresh and exciting performances are easily just as formidable. Of the two, I prefer the "Eroica", a piece that has literally no better orchestra than Cleveland to play it. Szell's is a staggering achievement, with the best fourth movement coda ever recorded, but the Telarc digital sound captures this generation's orchestra in equally stunning form. The old Sony/Columbia set still doesn't win any awards for sound quality; for some, the sonic improvement will be enough. The sixth is invigorating and brisk, with all of the pastoral quality (pun intended) that one looks for in this work. Again, the sound is crystal clear, and still stands as a modern reference edition. Want slower tempos? Bohm, Klemperer and Barenboim fit that bill, but Dohnanyi is never rushed and always stays faithful to the music. These performances don't replace Szell's, but they sincerely and respectfully compliment them.
Now, the Choral Fantasy features the Boston Symphony under Ozawa and Rudolf Serkin at the piano. A minor work in the Beethoven canon, it still foreshadows the choral ninth symphony and can bring a house to its feet. Such a pity then, this rendition is a bit of a dud. The aging Serkin sounds tired, especially in comparison to his excellent romp with Leonard Bernstein, also on Sony Classical. Ozawa has never been a great Beethoven conductor, and made some rather boring recordings for Telarc with this very orchestra. The whole affair is laborious and uninspired, although the Tanglewood forces (with sopranos Faye Robinson & Mary Burgess, contralto Lili Chookasian, tenor Kenneth Riegel, baritone David Gordon, and bass Julien Robbins) are nearly always welcome and the actual credit for the soloists is both refreshing and deserved. Sound quality is again terrific. With such excellence in the symphonies, it would be ridiculous not to recommend this well packed and priced set because of this one work, and a beginner or even seasoned collector could easily feel different than I. When all is said and done, this fine program is a welcome tribute to two great American orchestras, and to great music.
Copyright © 2012, Brian Wigman