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Sunday, April 24, 2011

DVD Review: The King of the Golden Hall

Discovering Beethoven: Symphonies 7, 8 and 9
with Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic

Christian Thielemann, leading the Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverein.
Photo © The Vienna Philharmonic/Unitel Classics
These recordings conclude a collaborative project between the Vienna Philharmonic and Christian Thielemann, the impressive conductor who, over the course of the past decade, has become the most eminent baton in German music. Here, Mr. Thielemann leads engaging performances of the last three Beethoven symphonies, the heroic Seventh, the humorous Eighth, and the Ninth, the composer's mighty shout for joy and brotherhood that ends the cycle.

The great opportunity here is to experience the Vienna forces playing in their home building, the legendary Goldensaal of the Musikverein in Vienna. Better yet, they're playing this beloved music in front of a live audience. Something is gained from actually recording in the bright, warm acoustic of the Musikverein, the chance for the home viewer to share in the unique communion between the audience and this ancient, brilliant orchestra.

In fact the whole endeavor, like Mr. Thielemann himself, is a bit of a throwback, to an age before tonmeisters and record company suits crammed the record shelves with mediocre Beethoven cycles led by egotistical conductors at the height of an unsustainable boom. By making honest music without the aid of modern machinery, the Viennese have done the impossible: they have come up with a fresh take on this well-known, well-loved music.

Mr. Thielemann leads a straightforward, über-Romantic interpretation, opting for a limpid clarity of texture that allows the listener to hear these sturdy works afresh. He is aided by the sterling acoustics of the hall, the quiet-as-mice audience, and of course the unique sound of the Vienna Philharmonic, whose well-documented use of "Viennese" horns, period oboes and goat-skin drums make them, in effect, an historic ensemble that chooses tradition over technology.

The Seventh hums with vibrant energy, throwing itself into its dramatic, frenzied dance movements with real fire and muscular good humor. The slow movement (made famous once more in the Oscar-winning The King's Speech--is it a coincidence that Mr. Thielemann looks like a larger, burlier brother of Colin Firth?) is produced here with all due weight and power, and the final movement whirls to a celebratory climax. It is well matched with its "little" brother, the Eighth. In Mr. Thielemann's hands, the least-known of the symphonies continues the air of heroic bonhomie, proving that Beethoven did indeed, have a sense of humor.

The Ninth may be famous, but given its choral requirements, difficult vocal writing and prodigious length, it is tricky to bring off. This is a near-flawless reading. There are some odd tempo changes: for example, a sudden accelerando in the Turkish March that serves only to build momentum into the climactic double fugue. The camera crew gives equal time to singers, musicians and Mr. Thielemann, and it is fascinating to watch this great opera conductor lead singers under full light, not hidden in an orchestra pit. The four vocal soloists (Annete Dasch, Mihoko Fujimura, Piotr Beczala and Georg Zeppenfeld) are strong, as is the accompanying chorus: a mighty shout of Austrian humanity.

It is a sign of bizarre musical times that these sterling performances are not available on that antiquated format, the CD. These are DVD-only readings, incorporating the joys of a live performance with visuals. (The Blu-Ray releases are single discs, the DVD sets are three discs each.) The symphonies come with copius bonus features, including a series of documentaries where Mr. Thielemann explains his tempo decisions in detail. It is a mark of their depth that the three films taken together are longer than the performances.

Of course, you could just leave the television off and connected to the stereo, but that would deprive one of the full experience of attending a concert at this famous hall, without the benefit of a Viennese benefactor, a job at Musical America or a decade on the orchestra's waiting list for tickets. Still, an audio-only version would be welcome.

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