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Beethoven: Symphonies 7, 8 & 9 / Thielemann, VPO

Thielemann / Beethoven / Vpo / Dasch / Zeppenfeld
Release Date: 03/29/2011 
Label:  C Major   Catalog #: 705108  
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Georg ZeppenfeldMihoko FujimuraAnnette DaschPiotr Beczala
Conductor:  Christian Thielemann
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Philharmonic OrchestraVienna Singverein
Number of Discs: 3 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Also available on Blu-ray

The Beethoven cycle of the 21st century!
Christian Thielemann joins forces with the prestigious Wiener Philharmoniker in a unique and monumental project BEETHOVEN 9, their first-ever recording of all 9 Symphonies in full high definition and Surround Sound. This recording from the Golden Hall of Vienna´s Musikverein is accompanied by nine(!) hour-long documentaries, one on each symphony, featuring Christian Thielemann and Germany´s most eminent music critic, Prof. Joachim Kaiser. From insights into Beethoven´s musical thinking to interpretational comparisons, including excerpts form legendary performances by Karajan,
Read more Bernstein, Böhm, Järvi etc., to historical perpsectives – no aspect of Beethoven´s symphonic oeuvre will remain untreated! This 3 DVD-set contains Beethoven Symphonies 7, 8 & 9 and the Documentaries about Symphonies 7, 8 & 9.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 7, 8 and 9

Annette Dasch, soprano
Mihoko Fujimura, mezzo-soprano
Piotr Beczala, tenor
Georg Zeppenfeld, bass

Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wien
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Christian Thielemann, conductor

Recorded live at the Goldener Saal der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna
Discovering Beethoven
with Joachim Keiser and Christian Thielemann
one-hour long documentary for each symphony

Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo / DTS 5.0 (Documentaries, PCM Stereo)
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese
Running time: 157 mins (concert) + 169 mins (documentaries)
No. of DVDs: 3

R E V I E W:

Beethoven symphonies: the carbon monoxide of the record industry. The catalogs are choked with vanity cycles by conductors who feel they have something new to say. And so often they actually do. This is why I can’t subscribe to the view that Beethoven should be banned for a few years so that musicians can come back to it fresh. The trouble is it’s gets harder to spot the good stuff; just looking through Deutsche Grammophon’s list of Beethoven symphonies is like looking at a diseased artery, furred up with banal and unnecessary sets. I know he’s an easy target, but it is basically all Karajan’s fault. Three cycles (four including the DVDs), each more smug and complacent than the last. Look at Claudio Abbado, too. True, his Vienna set was pretty dreary, so that spritely, post-illness Berlin cycle in 2000 came as a breath of fresh air. But now that has just been reedited and repackaged at huge expense. Aside from silting up the shelves, what these repeat offenders are doing is depriving other talents. Twenty years ago DG would have granted someone as distinctive and celebrated as Christian Thielemann his own studio recording of Beethoven symphonies. Now that his work with DG has died down, he has to be content with a cycle of live videos on the C Major label.

Still, this is not the comedown it could have been. This is, I think I’m right in saying, the first new Beethoven cycle from the Vienna Philharmonic since 2003, when EMI recorded it playing rather sulkily for Simon Rattle’s historically informed interpretation. Thielemann is so much closer to the Vienna Philharmonic’s traditional, big-boned standard, and although a DVD feels more like a byproduct than a lavish CD set, everyone has been captured in very swanky picture and sound. Then there are the extras.

Actually let’s start with those first, for in many ways they are the most remarkable feature here; each symphony in the set is granted its own hour-long discussion between Thielemann and that titan of German music criticism, Joachim Kaiser. I was expecting some ghastly wrestling match of giant egos, and I suppose it is that, but the lively discussions are fascinating and have the luxury of time. Thielemann has to be the first musician I have encountered who is prepared to share his trade secrets so congenially, calmly and concisely explaining every one of his interpretative decisions (or solutions) in layman’s terms. Despite his 1930s demeanor, he is a funny, modern man, with a wonderful visual sense; that reoccurring trio in the Seventh’s third movement is for him like being stuck on hold with looped music, and is a joke of endurance from Beethoven. His defense of vibrato and of not being a slave to the metronome is equally fresh and forward-looking. Spurring him on is the excitable Kaiser, sharing his own (sometimes conflicting) views, and citing other conductors of the past. We get generous clips, too, not just of Thielemann, but also of Solti, Bernstein, Böhm, even Paavo Järvi, spliced together to demonstrate how views of the same music differ. Not even Bernstein was that open about his methods, but like that past master of musical lectures, this bonus disc is of equal value to both newcomer and music scholar. I was thoroughly hooked by this odd couple and their demystifying of the conductor’s craft, like the dangers of being too direct to the orchestra, or not letting the players think for themselves.

But therein lies the problem or discrepancy. Christian Thielemann has to be one of the least indirect conductors to watch, and some may find his manic, robotic podium movements insufferable, although the results are often remarkable. The only aspect not to be pulled about is the basic orchestral texture, which although exquisitely blended and smooth remains fairly constant through each symphony. No one is allowed to stick out of the sound balance. The playing is for the greater good. Nevertheless, Thielemann does encourage a lot of flexibility with tempos, allowing individual orchestral parts some limelight, but overall it is not worth competing with those wonderful but high-cholesterol strings.

The Seventh is the most remarkable here, for surviving this approach. Despite the string section’s size, this is a fleet, propulsive account with astonishing articulation. The second movement is also superb, reaching a natural rather than a sudden, shattering climax, showing up many lesser versions, which are disjointed and premature in execution. The third movement is the usual gallop, again achieved with astonishing precision, and for once the wind solos are allowed to shine. Thielemann wisely decides to allow some breath in the final movement without any loss of momentum. There is, undeniably, a heaviness to the bass lines, but it is not the smothered performance I was dreading.

The biggest shock here is the Eighth. It is not short of energy or pace, but it is just so big and monumental an account as to sound like a prelude to the Ninth. Clearly Thielemann sees the nine symphonies as a unified journey (a debatable point). Again, it is astonishing how the players keep their light touch and precision, but any echoes of Classicism have been vaporized. For the Ninth itself, he seems almost to hold back, despite huge emphasis of the first movement’s various themes. The second movement predictably here is not allowed to sound like a timpani concerto, but Thielemann works wonders with balancing its flippancy and relentlessness, and it feels less like the oddball section of the symphony. The glory of this Ninth, though, is the third movement, sober but not preposterously slow, and where Thielemann’s homogenized, vibrato-heavy sound is allowed to unfold naturally. As Thielemann says in the interview, it is the oasis in this mountain range of a work. The finale, in contrast, is almost too safe and smooth. The muted entry of the Joy theme is astonishingly hushed and beautiful, but in the slick ascent to that unruly, adrenaline-fueled finale, the feeling I have is of sitting in the back of a BMW, cocooned from it all.

Throughout, the Vienna Philharmonic plays beautifully, and judging by the eyes looking up, the players seem to have a lot of time for Thielemann’s ideas. The soloists in the Ninth are also good. Annette Dasch is an especially vibrant and animated performer, although, like so many before her, she makes heavy weather of that treacherous B? at the end. The chorus sings with clean precision, but like the orchestra, the tendency is to blend in and be part of the bigger cause.

Contrary to his reputation Thielemann is pretty swift throughout these symphonies. I am eager to hear the rest of the cycle, but given that the Eighth (Beethoven’s parting glimpse at Haydn, I always think) is pumped up to be as Brucknerian as his view of the Ninth, I would assume this monumental steeliness is consistent throughout this cycle. This may hark back to the grand tradition of Furtwängler, late Karajan, and Weingartner, but what is lacking is that ability they had to let the orchestra off the leash, to take it for a walk, so to speak. Brilliant as he clearly is, Thielemann is a controlling musician. Sometimes these extreme fluctuations work very well, like in the sudden dash after the tenor solo in the Ninth, but others, like his incessant ritardandos for opening statements, as if every symphony is Fate knocking on the door, will get on many people’s nerves.

So where does Thielemann fit into the annals of Beethoven interpretation? Apart from Barenboim’s channeling of Furtwängler’s style, Thielemann is pretty much on his own with his blended, big-scale interpretations. Yet you can’t call him a return to the old school, partly because he is so deliberate in these old-fashioned trappings, and he does sound different from, say, Karajan. I suppose “retro” is the nearest one can describe his sound. At least he has a sound, and an opinion, which is more than can be said for a lot of today’s blander interpreters. For this reason, this is an essential purchase for those who collect different views of Beethoven, but as a first cycle? Because of the superb interviews, I could recommend this as a first DVD cycle, but only if bought with a contrasting view on CD. For the latter I would recommend one of the “third way” interpretations, either one of Abbado’s Berlin cycles, or maybe that wonderful Vänska set on BIS. I personally get my Beethoven cycle fix by flitting between Abbado in Berlin and live Klemperer with the Philharmonia in 1960. For individual works, I am addicted to the Kleibers, Ferenc Fricsay, and overlooked gems like Charles Munch’s Ninth. But we could go on like this forever. It’s too personal. Besides, this is Fanfare ; I bet you all have at least 10 Beethoven cycles. At worst, Thielemann is a persuasive argument for an 11th set. So high praise then? Well, no, it’s more an observation than praise. For all its willful, stubbornly romantic brilliance, I personally don’t actually like Thielemann’s Beethoven very much, but my God, I respect it.

FANFARE: Barnaby Rayfield
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 7 in A major, Op. 92 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Christian Thielemann
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1811-1812; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 8 in F major, Op. 93 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Christian Thielemann
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1812; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 9 in D minor, Op. 125 "Choral" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Georg Zeppenfeld (Bass), Mihoko Fujimura (Alto), Annette Dasch (Soprano),
Piotr Beczala (Tenor)
Conductor:  Christian Thielemann
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra,  Vienna Singverein
Period: Classical 
Written: 1822-1824; Vienna, Austria 

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