Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)
Documentary: Making van Beethoven [DVD]
Annette Dasch (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (contralto), Piotr Beczala (tenor) & Georg Zeppenfeld (bass)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded between December 2008 and April 2010 in Goldener Saal der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: January 2012
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL
8697927172 (6 CDs)
Duration: 6 hours 10 minutes (CDs)
45 minutes (DVD)
The presentation of this set is lavish – a smart box surrounds a linen-bound booklet which binds in the notes together with the compact discs. Included is a bonus DVD giving insight into Beethoven and to Christian Thielemann’s relationship with the music. During the filming Thielemann says much about his approach to Beethoven’s symphonies but generally the production seeks to inform rather than promote the recording. The performances have also been filmed and a complete DVD set is available, so the description of filming techniques on this extensive sampler is very relevant. My only complaint is the appreciation of the conductor by members of the orchestra because it verges on the sycophantic at times. The cameramen must have enjoyed shooting the musical excerpts where the pictures switch frequently between rehearsals and performances while keeping the music continuous and there are no changes of acoustic regardless of the presence or absence of an audience. The amusing result is that Thielemann appears to switch between evening-dress and one or other of several brightly-patterned shirts while conducting the same performance.
The DVD prepares the listener for his subjective approach to certain aspects of the music but I find it interesting that the conductor confines these personal elements of his interpretations mainly to the more-dramatic symphonies. This means that Symphony No.1 is treated in a fairly ‘classical’ style but there are still elements of subjectivity. From the outset Thielemann seems to be searching – the introduction is very slow indeed and extremely dramatic; the final phrase causes a surprise by being taken at the tempo of the succeeding Allegro con brio and it shows touches of dynamic shading at the very start.
I suppose the conductor’s dramatic approach to the music makes the conventional emphasis at the close of the of the opening phrases of Symphony No.5 inevitable but I am glad to note that it is a great deal less marked than in many a ‘traditional’ performance. Although his tempo is slower than that of the most convincingly furious readings (Kleiber father and son, Scherchen, Chailly, Abbado), Thielemann imparts a strong sense of forward drive – dramatic but not rhetorical. There is a superb oboe solo. The Andante con moto tends to lack the ‘moto’ element but it is lovingly phrased. The scherzo finds Beethoven’s deletion of the repeat being respected (very few conductors put it back into the score). The horn-led theme bounces along rhythmically and fairly swiftly – I’m not sure about the emphatic lurch into the trio by the double basses but the tension builds nicely, the articulation is magnificent and all this leads to a good sense of pre-finale tension. As usual I wish the quiet timpani strokes had been better defined and there is a very personal approach to the start of the finale where the first four bars are considerably broader than those that follow. This happens again, both on the repeat and at the later re-appearance of the theme. It is all grand and exciting which is how it should be and it ends in fury with gradation of dynamics similar to that found in Erich Kleiber’s unparalleled reading.
How refreshing to have the first movement of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony taken at an easygoing pace; perhaps the unrealistic metronome marking has persuaded some conductors to race through this calm music – but clearly the metronome is irrelevant to Thielemann. There is hint of tension before the repeat and toward the end of the first movement but in general all is calm. The description ‘flowing but flexible’ applies to the first two movements and the very expressive approach to birdsong at the close of the second one is a nice touch. The Peasants’ scherzo is lively. These are vigorous country folk but they are less heavy-footed than might have been expected and the bassoonist is surprisingly refined. I like the wild scattering of the dancers prior to the storm during which the timpani and double basses are suitably thunderous. All the big chords are full and weighty and the flow of the music is such that the gentle unhurried approach to the final hymn of praise works well, leaving space for the biggest climax of all to make a grand but comforting effect. In this context the unusually slow sequence of final bars, though not quite what is in the score, is an acceptable view of the closure.
In considering other conductors for the sake of comparison I have not mentioned Otto Klemperer but there are some similarities with Thielemann – particularly in respect of basic tempo although Klemperer retains the pulse firmly whereas Thielemann frequently varies it. Nevertheless there is a parallel regarding firmness of progress in the readings of both musicians together with their concern for inner detail. They also take a similar view regarding observation of repeats in the first six symphonies: they play them all, save for Klemperer in the ‘Eroica’.
When it comes to No.7 however Klemperer unaccountably leaves out repeats in all directions, making no exposition repeats in the outer movements and only one of the four in the scherzo. To my surprise Thielemann makes similar omissions but less logically than Klemperer, because in the scherzo, having chosen not to repeat the second part of it on its first appearance, he then throws in the second repeat of the trio, itself very slow – back to the days of Erich Kleiber, Furtwängler and Weingartner – but he resultant asymmetrical shape of the movement becomes confusing. Overlook these aberrations together with the shortening of the outer movements and it is still worth studying how the conductor regards the music. He has ideas that go back a long way in performing tradition. A very expressive introduction leads to a grand Allegro taken broadly, with emphases at crucial points. The control of rhythm is immaculate, in the coda the past view is taken whereby the threatening double basses grind out their obsessive repeated figure very slowly and wind up the speed to an exciting finish.
It is no longer fashionable to take the Allegretto at an unhurried Andante but it happens here and interest is held, not least through the dramatic way in which the dynamics are shaped although the relaxation for the second subject will not suit everyone. The finale has a great deal of fire, starting at an average sort of speed but pushing on after half-a-minute and slowing at the start of the development giving a second opportunity to give excitement through acceleration and this happens each time the same melodic phrase appears. It is possible to question the validity of these moments but Thielemann is certainly consistent in demonstrating his ideas and the only unusual feature about the whirling thrill of the final pages is the insistence of the repeated trumpet notes in the last half-dozen bars.
A quarter of a minute into Symphony No.8 there is an eccentric rallentando, then we have a slower second subject, yet for all this there is something majestic about this reading. The last few notes of the movement are presented as a huge slowing – as if the composer had marked the last two bars ‘molto collapso’. There is a strange woodwind note in bar 4 of the Allegretto scherzando but the moderate pace rather suits the music, although I am not sure if, in this tribute to his invention, Maelzel would have approved of his metronome being part of expressive slowing from time to time, but generally the music is made to sound sunny and well-natured. Sturdiness returns in the measured Minuet which is flexible but not eccentrically so. The rounding-off at the end of the second section is perhaps questionable; it is not that it is unmusical but it makes it impossible for the horns to be in tempo as the trio starts giving the section a slower feel yet the Minuet does not hurry when it returns. In the finale I miss the delightful soft repeated drum patterns – they are recorded very distantly. This is a broad tempo; the power is there but not perhaps the humour although I do like the hugely long mid-movement fermata.
In the ‘Choral’ Symphony there seems to be a slightly different balance and the timpani are a little stronger. From the very start the matter of general definition comes into question because the sotto voce descending violin phrases are barely audible beneath held horns and tremolo strings; this also occurs when the pattern returns later-on. There is however a sense of inevitably as the music moves forward steadily and majestically and it is some eight minutes before Thielemann imposes his personality by easing back to introduce an important theme. Above all he brings immense power to the terrifying recapitulation passage – the all-important timpani make a thrilling sound here. It is no surprise that the coda should start very slowly; this is not justified by the score but it makes the close of the movement exhilarating.
Next comes the scherzo and I am sure many listeners will find it frustrating. Firstly, of the four repeats Thielemann leaves out the second one – there is no structural justification for this, but maybe structure does not matter to the conductor in this movement because at the beginning of the second section there is a build-up to a long-held note which precedes a bassoon solo and here the tempo is drawn back so fiercely that the music almost stops. Then at the massive tutti passage punctuated by furious drum strokes the tempo is again modified. There is lovely playing in the unhurried trio and a magnificent horn solo. I can live with the huge rallentando before the return of the scherzo but in general I find it very difficult to come to terms with the way it is shaped. The succeeding movement responds very well to Thiemann’s expressive muse though. A real Adagio molto commences this deeply-felt interpretation and the juxtaposition of the Andante moderato section is very well judged. Such an expansive reading is rare nowadays.
The staggeringly discordant start of the finale crashes in with suitable immediacy. This time the descending violins at the brief reference to the start of the opening movement cannot be heard at all but this is a trifle because Thielemann does have something special to offer in this movement. The main theme starts in a subdued hush after a long, dramatic pause. This tune is so familiar yet the phrasing is fresh and illuminating and its brass-led culmination is truly triumphant – good to hear the upper woodwind being so forceful too. The first vocal entry displays flexible phrasing from Georg Zeppenfeld who has a light timbre – aficionados might like to know that he does not employ the disputed appoggiatura on the word “tone”. The chorus enters and is stunningly forceful, landing with immense power on “Vor got”. After the modern convention of subduing the percussion in the military march, Piotr Beczala is expressive and accurate albeit not especially heroic, but when the choir enters to present the restatement of the main melody, excitement is considerable. This leads to a very broad rendering of “Seid umschlungen…” and the intensity with which the chorus expounds the belief that a loving father must surely dwell above the stars is magical. Thielemann adopts an extremely slow tempo here and rightly so for a moment that makes the listener wish that this passage might go on forever. I certainly appreciate the balance of the final pages: throughout the chorus is clear and forward and the soloists remain in natural perspective. The singers do use vibrato but they avoid sounding operatic. As for the coda – it is noble and uplifting. The percussion is adequate and excellent balance incorporates a clearly etched piccolo line.
How then to sum up this strangely mixed set? I listened to the symphonies in numerical order and ended by being mightily impressed by the inspirational interpretation of the finale of No.9. Yet there are so many arguable features elsewhere that an overall description seems impossible. This is a set for those prepared to accept a very personal view of Beethoven, performed by one of the world’s greatest orchestras. The sound is big and modern – the applause has very properly been removed but subdued rustling giving evidence of the presence of an audience is retained between movements. This sounds very natural – an excellent way to present live performances. A good amount of resonance is evident giving a bloom to the sound. Balance is generally very convincing but the nature of the performances means that instruments do not leap out of the texture and the occasional fortissimo chord strikes the ear less strongly than in many other performances. Regarding these challenging interpretations, some of the modifications to Beethoven’s instructions have been demonstrated before, other ideas are entirely new. Tempos take very little account of the metronome markings that were added to the scores toward the end of the composer’s career but all choices of basic speed seem justified within the context of the relevant interpretation. The listener must be aware however that Thielemann often tends to modify his initial choices as the music proceeds. This is a controversial set but it does illuminate aspects of Beethoven that escape many other interpreters.