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Friday, March 2, 2012

Recordings Review: Beethoven Deluxe

Christian Thielemann records the Nine Symphonies.
Conductor Christian Thielemann, leading the Vienna Philharmonic in the Große Saal.
Image © 2011 The Vienna Philharmonic/Sony Classical
Making recordings of all nine Beethoven symphonies is a rite of passage for any conductor. For  Christian Thielemann, the Berlin native who started as a repiteteur for Herbert von Karajan, making a new cycle of the nine with the Vienna Philharmonic is a crucial achievement. This set, newly released on Sony Classical, cements his place in the history of that great orchestra, and pays homage to the great conductors of the golden age of stereo.

This cycle was made between 2008 and 2010, in front of an audience in the Großer Saal of the Musikverein, the Philharmonic's home base. Although the Vienna players use brass and wind instruments that were designed in the 19th century, these performances have little to do with the period-instrument movement. Mr. Thielemann chooses a weighty, Romantic approach to these works that respects Beethoven's texts but slows down in the adagios and the Eroica funeral march to an almost static crawl. This is old-school, heavyweight Beethoven.

This is actually the second release for these performances, which came out in a series of Blu-Ray and DVD documentaries in 2011. Mr. Thielemann takes a stern approach to the First and Second works, giving the latter symphony a brusque, earthy appeal. The Eroica is stretched to the limit. Mr. Thielemann chooses to make certain passages Allargando, slowing down the orchestra. The funeral march, almost sedentary, is  problematic. The last two movements are at normal tempos, with rich playing from the Viennese in the final theme and variations.

Throughout these recordings, Mr. Thielemann makes free use of rubato, incorporating his long experience with German opera and the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. He leads familiar passages in an organic, instinctual way that never feels forced--an effect that can be heard in the opening of the Fourth and the whirling peasant dances of the Pastorale. The "marching" horns in the third movement of the Fifth are another good example of this technique, forcing the rest of the orchestra to jog along. The triumphant opening bars of the finale are played slowly, before the orchestra speeds up in the tutti passages.

A sense of epic struggle emerges  as the listener moves on to the last three symphonies. The Seventh is weighty, with the dance movements contrasting with a lumbering Allegretto. The Eighth does not have the same humor as other recordings, as if Mr. Thielemann is somewhat embarrassed by Beethoven's most light-hearted, Haydnesque symphony. However, the "metronome" movement ticks like a watch.
This maestro is no myth: Christian Thielemann leads the Vienna Philharmonic.
Image © 2011 Vienna Philharmonic/Sony Classical
The set ends with a robust, and sometimes terrifying Ninth Symphony. There are great moments here: the sheltering woodwinds against the orchestral assault in the first movement, the sound of the goat-skin kettledrums in the Molto vivace and a serene Adagio, again taken at a contemplative speed. One can hear the souls of the Vienna players pouring forth in the opening pages of the Ode to Joy. A strong quartet of soloists are featured, led by baritone Georg Zeppenfeld and tenor Piotr Beczala. His "Froh!" solo is exciting, subtly accompanied and leading into the giant recapitulation that inspired a century of symphonists to write for the voice.

The symphonies are broken out into six discs, with the Eroica, Pastorale and the Ninth getting their own CDs. The remaining wors are paired in order: 1 with 2, 4 with 5, and 7 with 8. The engineering is  magnificent, afinely balanced sound that creates a perfect orchestral picture. The Sony engineers were meticulous: capturing the scrape of bow on string, the movement of air over reeds, and the occasional stray sound or stage creak in the Musikverein.

That feeling of "throwback" also applies to the handsome packaging designed by Sony Classical. Using the template first applied in that label's archive of Miles Davis recordings, the discs are housed in a hardback book that fits neatly into a white, gold, and pink slipcase. And there's a bonus in the form of a 45-minute documentary on a bonus DVD. Herr von Karajan would have approved.

Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.