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Robert Cummings
MusicWeb International, April 2011

This is the second volume in Thielemann’s Beethoven symphony cycle, which is available in both Blu-Ray and standard DVD formats. In my review of the first volume, which contained Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 [C Major 704908 (DVD), 705004 (Blu-ray)], I noted that Thielemann’s highly individual approach would provoke controversy. The same holds true here: clearly, the conductor has worked out his view of each work to the minutest detail, inserting numerous tempo shifts, employing dynamics of all grades—and usually very subtly, with nothing jarring or abrupt—and drawing out the greatest precision from the Vienna players. Thielemann always conducts with a view to the work’s overall architecture, not just to momentary effect.

What is crucial here is that Thielemann does not attempt to impart a mature sense or unwarranted angst to the youthful first two Beethoven symphonies, as some conductors erroneously have in the past. These two works are given spirited performances and Thielemann clearly understands the big step Beethoven took with the Second Symphony, treating it a bit more seriously but not seeing it quite reaching the depth attained in the Eroica or the symphonies that followed. In both the First and Second symphonies, there is a bit less variance in dynamic levels and less tempo shifting than in the Eroica Symphony and the Overtures.

Thielemann delivers a bracing account of the opening movement of the First, and while the mood is light and joyful there is also a muscular character to the music here, noticeable in the conductor’s deft accenting and the manner he builds momentum. The ensuing Andante cantabile is charming and light, with subtly nuanced dynamics and many often neglected but significant details emerging. The brief Menuetto is brisk and colorful, and the finale moves from an opening yawn (Adagio) to pure joy and energy (Allegro molto e vivace). Again, the dynamics are well conceived and the spirited playing of the orchestra is impressive. This is one of the finest accounts of the First, at least in recent memory, and perhaps in the last several decades.

Thielemann’s Second features an opening movement whose slow introduction is filled with tension and hints of darkness. The exposition (Allegro con brio) is sunny and energetic, but again muscular and brimming with detail. The ensuing Larghetto is lovely in its airy lyricism and often demure character. The brief Scherzo is bouncy and joyous, with thumping percussion, playful strings and spirited woodwinds. One could almost write “ditto” for the finale (Allegro molto), as the mood of the music and its playing are similar. But Thielemann adroitly catches the humor too, with both clever accenting and well conceived dynamics. Again, this is an account clearly among the finest in recent times.

With those two successes we now come to the Third Symphony, without doubt the most provocative performance here. Thielemann’s tempos tend to fall slightly below the norm: his first movement, at 19:52, is one of the longest I’ve encountered. The 1975 Solti/CSO on Decca featured a similar tempo, clocking in at 19:25 but without achieving the tension and epic sense Thielemann delivers. Other Beethoven cyclists like Abbado (DG), Harnoncourt (Teldec), Karajan (DG – three times), Masur (Pentatone), as well as Szell, Toscanini, Jochum and many others, are brisker here and throughout the symphony. That said, none of them quite manipulate the dynamics and tempos the way Thielemann does.

Notice how after the crucial first eight notes of the first movement’s main theme the dynamics drop, but then gradually swell and go on to reach grandeur when the brass and horns reinforce the scoring. Thielemann is a master of this kind of manipulation: adjustments in dynamics and tempo never seem artificial in his hands but fit right into the scheme of things. The whole movement is brilliantly imagined and skilfully executed. The Funeral March is grim and very slow, but again Thielemann deftly maintains tension, this time by imparting weight in the way he blends the lower strings and rhythms into the sound fabric. He works up a real sense of desperation in the climactic moments and the return of the main theme is troubled and dark.

The Scherzo is hearty and energetic, with tempos on the brisk side. Even the horn-dominated trio comes across with greater color and vitality than is often the case. The Finale begins with an especially nervous onrush of notes and then the strings deliver the pizzicato statement of the main theme softly and deliberately. Once again, a head of steam is worked up and the movement is given a vigorous and glorious treatment.

The two overtures are played with equal precision and insight, although Thielemann’s holding back of the tempo in the main theme of the Coriolan Overture may be a bit overdone. In all performances the Vienna Philharmonic play with accuracy and total commitment. The three bonus tracks, nearly an hour each, offer worthwhile commentary in German (with multi-language subtitles) on the music by Thielemann and musicologist Joachim Kaiser. The camera-work is excellent throughout the performances and the sound vivid and powerful. Abbado, Harnoncourt, Szell, Jochum and Toscanini (if you don’t mind mono sound) are all worthwhile Beethoven symphony cyclists, as is Michael Gielen, whose version with the SWR Sinfonieorchester is available on DVD from Euro Arts. However, the more one listens to Thielemann’s quite individual approach to these symphonies, the more the performances sound new and revelatory. Is he better than the others? It’s a tough choice to make, but he’s nearly always as interesting and often more interesting.

Lawrence Devoe, March 2011

The Performance

This is the first Blu-ray offering of the three initial Beethoven symphonies, all of which have been previously released as DVDs. There is not a better Beethoven orchestra today than the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic). Its progenitors were the first musicians to play these symphonies, composed in Vienna, between 1799 and 1804, when this city was the music capital of the world. Christian Thielemann, a native Berliner, has spent most of his outstanding musical career in Berlin, Munich, and now Dresden. The partnership of Thielemann and the Philharmoniker was a Beethoven match made in heaven when these videos were shot in 2008 and 2009. The sum total of these performances more than meets this expectation, in every aspect. Viewing these symphonies in their chronology yields great insights into Beethoven’s development as a composer. Symphony No. 1 (C major, Op.21) is the most Mozartian of the set as the only Beethoven Symphony to include a classical minuet movement. Symphony No. 2 (D Major, Op.36) shows Beethoven gradually moving away from his Viennese forebears, Haydn and Mozart. While one of the least played of the cycle, there are moments that presage some of the later symphonies, particularly the famous 5th. Symphony No. 3 (E-flat Major, Op. 55) is the first Beethoven symphony to bear a title, Eroica. Napoleon Buonaparte was its original dedicatee, a decision later reversed by Beethoven. Most music historians agree that the Eroica represents a turning point, not only for Beethoven’s career, but for the course of Western music. Although cast in standard four-movement form, the Eroica simply does not resemble its predecessors in its musical ideas or their expression. This disc is completed by two later works, the Coriolan (Op. 62) and Egmont (Op. 84) Overtures.

Video Quality

The Gold Room of the Musikverein, the Wiener Philharmoniker’s home, is a drop-dead gorgeous venue. It is challenging to keep viewers engaged in orchestral music as the only stage action comes from sedentary players and a conductor who is in constant motion. Brian Large who directed the first two symphonies and the Coriolan overture does a masterful job keeping us on our toes with judicious pans and close ups of Thielemann and his players. The other two directors, Agnes Meth and Michael Beyer, contribute commendably although their work lacks some of Large’s perfect timing in the cutaways. The 1080i HD quality is sharp and the color palette is beautiful throughout.

Audio Quality

The soundtrack in a DTS-HD Master Audio (96kHz/24-bit) is outstanding. The hall effects are judicious as they should be with the music kept up front (where it should be). The tonal balance is spot on and the warmth of live music is well captured by the mics. It is fascinating to watch the progressive increase in orchestral size as the symphonies progress. I have not heard many high definition sound tracks that get it as right as this one does. There is no 0.1-channel (subwoofer) included. This is, as I hear it, to the good as the bass is plentiful and clean.

Supplemental Materials

Unlike many classical music Blu-rays, which give the buyer short shrift in the extras department, this one offers 3 nearly hour-long commentaries on each of the symphonies by conductor Thielemann and Joachim Kaiser, a world-renowned music authority, who has heard most of the leading Beethoven conductors of the past sixty years. Each commentary provides detailed coverage of the preparation and rationale for every passage of music. As engrossing as they are, I would recommend viewing them after hearing these pieces for the first time, and then revisiting each symphony with this knowledge in mind.

The Definitive Word


Simply put, this is a magnificent symphonic recital. It is also very generous, offering 326 minutes of music and commentary. I can safely say that you are not likely to hear better realizations of the early Beethoven symphonies in today’s music world. These performances stand up extremely well to the SD competition, excel them in both audio and video quality, and offer occasional fresh insights into works that have been recorded by nearly every major orchestral conductor of the last 50 years. Thielemann uses his economical baton work and expressive body movement to get his players to yield near-chamber music intimacy, while keeping the massed sonorities rich and potent. I am eagerly awaiting the issue of the remaining 6 symphonies on Blu-ray disc. Bravo, maestro Thielemann, Wiener Philharmoniker, and Herr Beethoven!

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.

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