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Paul Pelkonen
Superconductor, November 2011

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 3 (with documentaries) (Vienna Philharmonic, Thielemann) (NTSC) 704708
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 6 (with documentaries) (Vienna Philharmonic, Thielemann) (NTSC) 704908
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 7, 8 and 9 (with documentaries) (Vienna Philharmonic, Thielemann) (NTSC) 705108

Superconductor 2011 Gift Guide: Beethoven for the Holidays

Hi-def high-quality Beethoven from Christian Thielemann, the German conductor whose whole career has been a determined throwback to the great kapellmeisters of the past: Hans Richter and Arthur Nikisch. These are visual records of the Vienna Philharmonic playing these great works in the legendary Musikverein. © 2011 Superconductor

C. Michael Bailey
All About Jazz, March 2011

Tempo warning: Christian Thielemann’s Beethoven is not the one we have become accustomed to over during the 25 year spasm of “historically informed” or “period” performance. Thielemann’s tempi are informed by the late Romantic conductors/composers and evidenced in his Wagner and Bruckner recordings. Tempi this slow have not been heard since Otto Klemperer. This is not a bad thing, but forewarned is forearmed.

Conductor Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic have teamed up to provide the “Beethoven of the 21st Century” by releasing the canonical Nine Symphonies on DVD and Blu-Ray, together with the Overtures and one-hour discussions of each work. Thielemann has been controversial and not completely well received by critics for his Late Romantic repertoire and particularly his Beethoven.

In 1997, Thielemann and the Philharmonia Orchestra released Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7 on Deutsche Grammophon. This was a bold move at the time, mimicking Carlos Kleiber and The Vienna Philharmonic’s near perfect 1974 release of the symphonies on the same label. While Thielemann proved to be no Kleiber, there was still much to endorse in the performances.

The first installment of this three-set series includes Symphony Nos. 1, 2 and 3, plus the Coriolan and Egmont Overtures. The pieces were recorded before in high definition before a live audience at the Goldener Saal der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. Thielemann is a youthful 50-years old and is obviously well received by the audience and the orchestra.

What of Thielemann’s Beethoven? The conductor takes seriously the master’s marking of Adagio molto in the first movement. So slow, that it is uncertain if the orchestra will get enough traction to take off. But no fear, by the time Thielemann gets to the Allegro con brio section, things clip right along. In fact, for the remaining three movements, things almost sound hurried. Thielemann is a man at work, perspiring, obviously restraining his enthusiasm for his subject. His attention is dense and dedication palpable. The conductor extrapolates this dedication to the two brief Overtures with aplomb.

Once Thielemann gained traction in his direction of the Symphony No. 1, he dispatched Symphony No. 2 perfectly. The orchestra was well balanced as were all the tempi. Thielemann was again animated but not to the point of distraction. This is a serious man doing his serious work. The Adagio molto is not as seriously adagio as in the Symphony No. 1, and here, Thielemann and company take this Allegro con brio firmly a la mode, giving it a bright and brisk reading. This is Beethoven channelling Haydn with warmth and admiration.

The Largetto second movement is stately and graced, paced with determination and thought. It is played as directed by Beethoven, expansively and expressively. The Scherzo flows seamlessly, Thielemann is relaxed and intent in his direction. He divines Beethoven’s sunny character from the movement, the strings sumptuous and the reeds always revealing the composer’s mind. The finale, Allegro molto, elbows its way to the front with confidence, saying what it has to say. An eclipsed serious tone emerges, foreshadowing the composer’s titanic Symphony No. 3. Thielemann graciously presents the orchestra to an appreciative crowd with a requisite number of exits and returns.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major is a musical hinge on which culture turns. The composer had put away childish things, coming face-to-face with the evolutionary pressure of music and composing. A so-called “middle period” work, Beethoven’s deafness had firmly manifested itself and the composer was resolute in his single-minded determination to create. Thielemann’s direction of those first two booming, definitive notes is all important and he elicits them from the orchestra with grit and muscle. This movement grandly defines Allegro con brio. He does take his time, but the movement never drags, retaining its gravity and drama.

Besides the length of the opening movement, it was the second movement that was a stylistic game-changer for Beethoven’s listeners. A Funeral March (marked Marcia funebre: Adagio assai) marked a departure from the typical second movement. Grave and solemn, Thielemann gently awakens the orchestra to the familiar theme. The high definition sound manifests potently here: the march in the low strings and brass, the violins whisper, and the composer’s heart in the reeds make for a sum much greater than the parts.

The Scherzo is dispatched with a fresh briskness. Thielemann propels the orchestra toward the finale with confidence and certainty. The Finale is a breezy allegro molto that is full bodied and sprite. Thielemann never allows the orchestra to over-compensate the character of the movement nor its overall place in the entire work. The Symphony No. 3 was Beethoven’s shot over the bow of Classicism, heralding the coming Brahms and Wagner. Thielemann’s treatment of the music and the orchestra make this the beginning of a fine cycle, one to be noticed, if for no other reason, because it hosts a world-class orchestra conducted by a Late Romantic specialist in the cradle of German Romanticism.

Symphony No.1 and the Overtures make up the first CD, and Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 the third. CD number three is made up of discussions of the pieces between Thielemann and German critic Joachim Kaiser. In the same way that one need not speak Italian to enjoy Puccini, one need not be able to understand German to listen to two Germans conversing about Germany’s greatest contribution to world culture; however, subtitles are appreciated. Informative and dramatic, these discussions add a great deal to the performances. The documentaries are perhaps best viewed prior to watching the performance. As an educational package, the method works very well to present this most important composer.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, March 2011

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 3 (with documentaries) (Vienna Philharmonic, Thielemann) (NTSC) 704708
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 3 (with documentaries) (Vienna Philharmonic, Thielemann) (Blu-ray, HD) 704804

The amazingly talented Christian Thielemann conducts Beethoven: Symphony Nos. 1, 2, & 3 in an exceptional concert release arriving from C Major in both a single Blu-ray and 3-DVD Set. A companion with a similar Beethoven Symphony 4, 5 & 6 program just issued (we did not cover it), it is a masterful interpretation worthy of the best recordings you have heard and this is a solid release, enhanced by no less than an informative booklet and three documentaries on the subject: Discovering Beethoven with Joachim Kaiser and Christian Thielemann, with an hour devoted to each masterpiece composition. The DVD set is nice, but I preferred the Blu-ray all around for its superior performance (especially that sound!) and convenience of storage. The DTS-HD (Master Audio) 5.1 lossless mix is amazing and the Dolby Digital 5.1 on the DVD is good for that format, but just cannot handle the sonic range of the soundmaster., February 2011

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 3 (with documentaries) (Vienna Philharmonic, Thielemann) (NTSC) 704708
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 6 (with documentaries) (Vienna Philharmonic, Thielemann) (Blu-ray, HD) 705004

The same is true of the Beethoven performances, on DVD or Blu-ray, with Christian Thielemann and the always outstanding Vienna Philharmonic—but these releases have more visual punch to them, not because of the symphonies themselves but because of their accompaniments. Thielemann’s readings are well paced, full of understanding of Beethoven’s structural innovations and emotional underpinnings, and played with the Vienna Philharmonic’s ever-present silky strings and gorgeous complementary wind, brass and percussion sections. The readings are not especially innovative or revelatory, but they are exceptionally well done in a fairly straightforward way, and the orchestral playing alone is a huge attraction. However, in terms of buying the videos rather than the same or similar performances on CD, the Thielemann offering provides something worthwhile: three hour-long “Discovering Beethoven” films, one per symphony, featuring Thielemann in conversation with the very well-known German music critic, Joachim Kaiser. The films go beyond talk, too, including excerpts from performances by other conductors (Bernstein, Böhm, Karajan, et al.), so viewers-cum-listeners have a chance to compare specific points of interpretation while also learning about Beethoven in his historical as well as musical context. Each of these supplementary documentaries lasts longer than the symphony that it discusses, and some of the points are on the abstruse side—or at least beyond what is necessary for enjoyment of the music. Listeners already familiar with this music may learn some fascinating tidbits about the works and their composer, but whether they will learn enough to make the purchase of these video versions worthwhile is difficult to say—especially since, while most people will want to hear the symphonies again and again, few are likely to want to replay the documentaries time after time. There is very definitely added value to this DVD set or Blu-ray Disc offering, but that fact does not make the Thielemann Beethoven any sort of must-have in video form.

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