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Beethoven: Complete Symphonies / Gielen, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg

Beethoven / Behle / Muller-brachmann / Brauns
Release Date: 05/29/2012 
Label:  Hänssler Classic   Catalog #: 93285   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Michael Gielen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baden-Baden Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 5 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN Symphonies: Nos. 1–9 Michael Gielen, cond; Renate Behle (sop); Yvonne Naef (alt); Glenn Winslade (ten); Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bs); Berlin RCh; SWR Baden-Baden & Freiburg SO HÄNSSLER 93.285 (5 CDs: 337:43) Live: Freiburg 1997–2000.

This set of live Beethoven symphonies conducted by Michael Gielen appears here complete on CD for the first time. All nine symphonies were issued on DVDs—Symphonies 1–3 on EuroArts 2050607, 4–6 on 2050637, and 7–9 on 2050667 (all reviewed in Read more style="font-style:italic">Fanfare 28:5 by Robert McColley)—but only Symphony 8 appeared previously on CD (Hänssler Classic 93056), coupled with the Piano Concerto No. 3 with Stefan Litwin. In his review of the DVDs, McColley asked the perfectly legitimate question, “Should one now concentrate on enjoying classical music as well as opera and ballet from DVDs whenever possible, thereby seeing as well as hearing the performance?” McColley admitted that he had “no clear answer,” but I would put it this way: Unless the conductor is one you derive great pleasure from watching as well as listening to (and I personally enjoy watching only a handful of conductors on video, among them Kempe, Munch, Tennstedt, and Toscanini), owning video documents of performances is often an extra distraction. The focus of any nontheatrical musical performance should always be the music, not how the conductor jumps around or how bored the orchestra looks on camera, therefore I applaud the eventual appearance of this complete set on CDs.

Despite excellent reviews for the first DVD and the CD of Symphony 8/Concerto 3, Gielen’s Beethoven has pretty much flown under the radar—as, to a large and very sad extent, has Gielen himself. As a conductor who is also a 12-tone composer, Gielen is often put in the same category as Pierre Boulez, that of a highly literate intellectual who, in the view of many critics, sometimes gives dispassionate performances that are close to the score but lack feeling. Yet I vividly recall his tenure as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony and can attest that the only real criticism that many listeners (myself included) had of Gielen was that he was far less concerned with producing a plush, “lovely” orchestral sound than with pursuing artistic truth in music. He is not, and never was, a conductor to please the ear as were Kempe, Karajan, López-Cobos, or Rattle, but his musical interpretations are often much closer to what historically informed performers try to achieve and, in my view, often surpass them in real feeling and authentic musical style.

To understand how this affects Beethoven’s symphonies, one must rewind the clock to the turn of the 20th century, when the highly respected conductor Felix Weingartner published his monograph on the conducting of the Beethoven symphonies. Flying in the face of tradition, Weingartner defended Beethoven’s tempos as pretty much sacrosanct. In his own famous set of Beethoven symphony recordings, recorded between 1927 and 1936, Weingartner produced performances that were close in tempo to those of another maverick, Arturo Toscanini, but which had a warmer tone and slightly rounder phrasing. Well into his late years, in fact, Toscanini was often vilified by Austrian and German critics and listeners for his “brutal” and “insensitive” readings of Beethoven (see Joseph Horowitz, Understanding Toscanini , one of the most musically ill-informed books ever published).

Regarding Beethoven’s musical style, I can put it to you this way: In his orchestral music and string quartets, he generally preferred a straightforward set of tempos and phrasing, seldom requiring the musicians to employ much in the way of rubato, rallentando, accelerando, or decelerando , but in virtually all of his music involving the piano Beethoven wrote very specific instructions into the scores (particularly the piano sonatas) that require a great deal of it. Where these two styles converge, or compete if you will, is in the piano concertos. Many performers split the difference by either forcing the orchestra to employ rhetorical phrasing to match the piano or, more commonly, forcing the pianist to eschew any attempts at rubato, et al. in an effort to match the orchestral part. The best solution I’ve ever heard was achieved by pianist Christian Zacharias with conductor Armin Jordan on the Cascavelle set of the concertos. This is not mentioned simply to plug the Zacharias-Jordan set (though it is a great one), but merely to indicate how these seemingly contradictory styles were used, and sometimes reconciled, in Beethoven’s music.

The symphonies, therefore, are to be played relatively straightforwardly with subtle tempo modifications. Toscanini’s solution was to sometimes tighten up the tempo ever so slightly, then relax it for certain periods. With Gielen, the relaxation is less evident in some movements, yet because he doesn’t always use the same tension as Toscanini, many of the fast passages actually sound more relaxed when in fact they are not (at least not in tempo). A good example is the Eighth Symphony, where Gielen injects quite a bit of vigor and some humor, especially in the last movement, where he has fun contrasting the quirky tempo changes, but overall it lacks some of the sheer exuberance one hears in the fantastic performance by the Marlboro Festival Orchestra conducted by Pablo Casals many, many moons ago.

These little differences manifest themselves continually throughout their cycles: Toscanini always a shade edgier with a touch more tragedy, Gielen mixing more warmth with energy. This makes for very interesting contrasts, and considering that most modern Beethoven sets have softer contours, lush orchestral sound, and smoother phrasing—unless they are HIP cycles, in which case they often lack feeling or are too choppy in phrasing—you can’t dismiss Gielen’s work here. As stated in the booklet, Gielen’s mission in regards to Beethoven has been “the finding and revealing of composed meaning, and thus also an emphatic clarification of violations and disruptions of norms.”

Ironically, the rise of historically informed performers in the 1970s and ’80s has generally confirmed that Toscanini was even closer to correct Beethoven style than Weingartner, good as the older conductor was. And where, specifically, Toscanini was right and Weingartner (and Erich Kleiber, Furtwängler, and Karajan) were wrong was in the phrasing of the music. Early 19th-century orchestras tended to play their music with a less flowing legato that carries everything from first note to last as if it were in one big breath, which gave their performances a bit more edge. (Charles Munch also used less even phrasing in Beethoven, though he sometimes rushed his tempos and produced sloppy playing.) To give one very clear and famous example, take the first movement of the Second Symphony. When played in the flowing style, as it was by Monteux, Karajan, and Kempe, the music is exciting but sounds very lyrical. Played in this manner, one is left scratching one’s head wondering what the heck audiences and critics of 1803 found so disturbing and offensive about this music. But played in the edgier, less continuous phrasing employed by Toscanini, and here by Gielen, the music sounds entirely different. Phrased in this manner, it’s easier to understand musicologist Harry Goldschmidt’s claim that this symphony represents a “contrafactum” of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in which Beethoven and the Countess Guiccardi, one of the composer’s crushes, assume the roles of Tamino and Pamina. In Gielen’s hands (and Toscanini’s), the music quite simply has more drama and is less sweetsy-cutesy.

Prior to the issue of this set, the best of the post-Karajan cycles (I prefer mixing performances from Karajan’s 1974–75 and 1983–84 cycles) was that by David Zinman with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra (Arte Nova), but as I said when that set was issued, Zinman’s performances—though entirely accurate and beautifully articulated and phrased—sound to me more like a blueprint for a great Beethoven cycle than a real interpretation of the music. With Gielen’s set, we now have equally outstanding performances (although, to be fair, with a few tiny bobbles in the playing … remember, all of these were recorded in one take) but with more drama or humor or just plain warmth than Zinman. Two examples of the difference may be heard in the first movement of the Fourth Symphony and the entire performance of the Sixth. In the former, Zinman’s playing of the slow introduction, and the subsequent switch to allegro , sounds good but a bit prosaic, while Gielen’s performance has a real feeling of portent and mystery in the slow passage (to which he also adds a slight nudge forward) and a feeling of surprise when the tempo changes. Then, in the “Pastorale,” Zinman is closer to the conventional smooth phrasing heard on most sets while Gielen achieves the sort of jauntiness one hears in Toscanini’s classic 1939 BBC Symphony recording. Again, the change in phrasing makes all the difference in the world to one’s emotional reaction. In Karajan’s 1983–84 cycle, he too finally took the composer’s faster tempos in the “Pastorale,” but by employing more continuous phrasing Karajan actually made the music sound more tense and less relaxed than Toscanini or Gielen.

When Gielen conducted the composer’s “Eroica” Symphony with the Cincinnati Symphony (both in performance and on a Vox recording), he employed one strange effect that I disagreed with, and that was inserting an extra two-beat pause before the entrance of the horns in the third-movement trio. I’ve re-consulted the score and it simply does not support this. In this new recording, he shortens the pause to one extra beat, which I can live with but still do not find is ideal. That being said, listening to the rest of the symphony is as bracing an experience as one can imagine, the first movement in particular sounding even more aggressive than Toscanini’s 1949 recording. I’m sure that those who desperately seek poetry in Beethoven won’t like it, but I do. It’s correct. It feels right. And it confirms Gielen’s complaint from as far back as 1957 that “It’s not true that I forgot about Beethoven’s tempo specifications—on the contrary, I followed them.” Yet this is not consistently true. Gielen is sometimes slower than score tempo in the third-movement scherzos, especially in the Fourth Symphony. Here the score indicates an initial tempo of dotted half = 100, and the trio section at dotted half = 88, but Gielen’s tempos are actually 92 and 77. These tempo relationships are OK, but you can’t claim that they’re score.

Yet the rest of the Fourth is played at score tempo, and in the second movement Gielen is able to bring out the Spanish habanera rhythm very well. The Fifth Symphony is also played at score tempo, and the results are almost frightening, especially in the first movement. Those used to a very long fermata on the last note of the opening four-note motif will be shocked: Gielen moves along at a tremendous clip. The second movement has its share of lyricism, to be sure, but again is slightly faster than we’re used to. In the famous transition between the third and fourth movements, I don’t feel that the orchestra builds up the drama well enough in its change from piano to fortissimo ; it seems not only a bit rushed but opens up too quickly. The microphone balance, which favors the brass over the strings, has something to do with it.

Gielen’s interpretation of the Seventh Symphony is a bit surprising. In the first two movements, he is a bit more relaxed than score tempo and in fact his phrasing here is more legato than normal, the results sounding not too different from Guido Cantelli’s 1956 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra, but in the third and fourth movements he again resumes the brisk written tempos and more closely resembles Toscanini (and also Karajan in his 1975–76 cycle).

In the Ninth Symphony, his approach comes closest to Toscanini’s fastest performances (NBC, 1939 and 1948). Again, being consistent with the other symphonies, the scherzo is a shade slower than score while the Adagio molto is right on the mark. The singers are an interesting if mixed lot, the contralto and bass being lyric singers noted for Bach, Mozart, Rossini, and Bizet, while the soprano and tenor, after initially singing lyric roles, had by this stage in their career (1999) moved on to Wagnerian roles. Thus one hears a slight overpowering of the musical line in their singing (particularly the tenor solo, which is more exposed), yet in the quartet passages they do a good job of blending, with Renate Behle and Glenn Winslade cutting back their volume to some extent. Behle is especially commendable: She has one of those cutting soprano voices, like Gré Brouwenstijn or Eva Marton, and surprisingly good diction even in the upper register. Since Gielen’s tempos in the last movement are, on the whole, even faster than Toscanini, his reading of the coda is faster, too, but note that it is not rushed in a maniacal fashion, as Wilhelm Furtwängler was wont to do. (A Furtwängler fan once asked me why Toscanini didn’t “rip through” the coda of the Ninth. I had a hard time explaining to him that you had to measure it against the preceding passages and establish a proper tempo relationship.)

My lone complaint about this set, a serious but not a fatal flaw, is Hänssler’s insistence on breaking up the symphonies in an idiotic fashion. CD 1 contains symphonies 1 and 3, CD 2 symphonies 2 and 7, CD 3 symphonies 4 and 8, CD 4 symphonies 5 and 6, then the Ninth on CD 5. What is wrong with these people? What kind of dolt wants to hear the Beethoven symphonies in this sequence? This is just as stupid as reissuing a classic novel like Les Miserables or Crime and Punishment with all the chapters printed out of sequence. In that respect, Hänssler should be ashamed of itself, but this set is far too good to brush aside because of the programming glitches. This is, easily, the greatest digital set of the Beethoven symphonies yet issued.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 9 in D minor, Op. 125 "Choral" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Michael Gielen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baden-Baden Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1822-1824; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 8 in F major, Op. 93 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Michael Gielen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baden-Baden Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1812; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 7 in A major, Op. 92 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Michael Gielen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baden-Baden Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1811-1812; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 6 in F major, Op. 68 "Pastoral" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Michael Gielen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baden-Baden Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1808 
Symphony no 5 in C minor, Op. 67 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Michael Gielen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baden-Baden Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1807 
Symphony no 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Michael Gielen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baden-Baden Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1806; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 "Eroica" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Michael Gielen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baden-Baden Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1803; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 2 in D major, Op. 36 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Michael Gielen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baden-Baden Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1801-1802; Vienna, Austria 
Symphony no 1 in C major, Op. 21 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Michael Gielen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Baden-Baden Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1800; Vienna, Austria 

Sound Samples

Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21: I. Adagio molto - Allegro con brio
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21: II. Andante cantabile con moto
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21: III. Menuetto - Allegro molto e vivace
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21: IV. Finale: Adagio - Allegro molto
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55, "Eroica": I. Allegro con brio
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55, "Eroica": II. Marcia funebre: Adagio assai
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55, "Eroica": III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55, "Eroica": IV. Finale: Allegro molto
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36: I. Adagio molto - Allegro molto
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36: II. Larghetto
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36: III. Scherzo
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36: IV. Allegro molto
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92: I. Poco sostenuto - Vivace
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92: II. Allegretto
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92: III. Presto
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92: IV. Allegro con brio

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