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Greg Hettmansberger
Madison Magazine, December 2011

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 6 (with documentaries) (Vienna Philharmonic, Thielemann) (NTSC) 704908
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 6 (with documentaries) (Vienna Philharmonic, Thielemann) (Blu-ray, HD) 705004

total package that makes these performances treasurable. The camera work is…as beautiful as the playing, with multiple angles that renew one’s interest as well as follow pretty closely the instrumental highlights as each symphony unfolds. Each of the first two volumes also includes the major overtures of Beethoven.

…the feature that puts this set over the top is that each symphony receives a one-hour documentary which consists of fascinating discussions between Thielemann and Joachim Kaiser…Needless to say, the highlights among all of Thielemann’s performances are too numerous to list here…the camera work is exemplary and, in this set, equally adept at revealing Barenboim the pianist and conductor. © 2011 Madison Magazine Read complete review

James A. Altena
Fanfare, September 2011

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 6 (with documentaries) (Vienna Philharmonic, Thielemann) (NTSC) 704908
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 6 (with documentaries) (Vienna Philharmonic, Thielemann) (Blu-ray, HD) 705004

…this is an uneven result for a laudably conceived production; one would have to see the other two volumes to decide whether or not the entire series is a worthwhile investment despite the shortcomings…College professors will likely find the discussions to be of some value for their courses, if used judiciously., 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.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, February 2011

The final Blu-ray brings us back to the talented Christian Thielemann with The Wiener Philhamoniker performing a totally symphonic concert of Beethoven – Sym. Nos 4, 5, & 6. These are rich performances of these all-time classics and will impress fans who know that not all performances of Ludwig Von are equal. There is a real love, understanding and grasp of the master composer here and I really liked this disc. Extras include the terrific Discovering Beethoven documentary in three hour-long parts, covering each symphony(!) that is reference quality and another informative booklet on the works.

Robert Cummings
MusicWeb International, February 2011

This Blu-Ray disc marks the first installment in a Beethoven symphony cycle by Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. All nine symphonies were recorded between December, 2008 and April, 2010 and are now being issued on three Blu-Ray discs and on three 3-disc sets of DVDs. On the evidence here I can say this will be one of the more interesting Beethoven cycles in the catalog. I use the word “interesting” advisedly, for Thielemann’s effort here will provoke some controversy. His take on these familiar works is highly individual, with all manner of detail pointed up, tempo adjustments in mid-stream, dynamics of multiple and subtle gradations, rests that are sometimes lengthened, and playing of the most exacting standards. Regarding the last observation, while the Vienna players deliver accurate and polished performances, they never sound stiff or reined-in, but rather natural and fully in sympathy with the emotional flow of the music. Indeed, they are of one mind in following Thielemann’s often unconventional way with the scores.

In general, Thielemann’s tempos tend to be moderate, but with an occasional tilt toward either the brisk or deliberate. Compared with conductors like Claudio Abbado, Roger Norrington, the late Herbert von Karajan, and so many others, Thielemann wouldn’t exactly be their polar opposite in tempo choices, but would stand in noticeable contrast, especially in works like the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. Thielemann’s Fifth is actually paced quite briskly.

One trait strongly in evidence is Thielemann’s tendency to contrast a second subject or alternate theme with the main theme by italicizing it in some way. In the Fourth Symphony’s first movement, for instance, the lively main theme is followed a second subject whose tempo is slightly held back initially, with momentum gradually returning. In the first movement of the Fifth, after a vigorous statement of the opening motto and its attending material, the second subject is presented conventionally at the outset, but gradually softens, the music seeming almost to fade away before returning to a normal level of dynamics.

There are many such passages in these three symphonies—passages Thielemann has carefully worked out in great detail, as he explains and discusses with musicologist Joachim Kaiser in the bonus feature on the disc, Discovering Beethoven. The Sixth, with its bucolic joy, lyrical beauty, peasant dancing and stormy character, is given a colorful and meticulous reading. Perhaps “meticulous” won’t suit some listeners in the way the main theme to the finale (Shepherd’s Song) is presented: it begins tentatively and quietly, then blossoms to a beautiful serenity. It’s not a radical re-thinking of this music, but it is imaginative and a bit risky.

Overall, it would be difficult to rank which is the most successful reading here, as all achieve a compelling level within the individual framework carved out by Thielemann. After a slow Adagio introduction, the Fourth takes off with vigor and joy, moods that remain throughout the symphony. The Fifth is muscular and epic, with Thielemann, curiously, not waiting for the applause to die down before beginning the performance, as he had done for the other two works here. I think this was deliberate, as if the conductor were trying to show “fate” suddenly “knocking at the door.” The Sixth is very lyrically played, with colorful peasant celebration in the third movement and a scary, powerful storm in the next.

But in all performances here, some listeners may find Thielemann’s use of dynamics, tempo shifts, extended pauses and other techniques a bit bothersome. I didn’t, because nothing is excessive and Thielemann makes a good case for his interpretation, imparting a sense of logic and a natural flow to the music. It won’t displace performances in the cycles of other Beethoven symphony sets—Abbado/Berlin, Harnoncourt/COE, Szell/Cleveland, Jochum/London Symphony—but it can stand probably alongside them and well ahead of many others, including at least the last two of Karajan, which pour on too much legato for my taste.

As suggested above the Vienna Philharmonic plays well in all the works. The camera-work and picture quality are superb. The aforementioned bonus feature offers valuable insights into Thielemann’s views on Beethoven’s music—the language is German, with multi-language subtitles.

This disc is probably eminently worth your while, especially if you want to hear a somewhat different take on these Beethoven warhorses.

Jeffrey Kauffman, January 2011

As incredible as it may seem, we haven’t yet had a complete Beethoven symphony cycle on Blu-ray. At least, until now. This new undertaking by Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic seems destined to set the standard for high definition presentation of the Beethoven symphonies for many years to come. With unusually nuanced performances of the middle triptych of Beethoven’s nonet, this first release of the cycle augurs one of the more memorable outings of symphonies that for better or worse are often treated with a sort of casual approach, courtesy of having become so very, very familiar over the passage of time. Perhaps at least as impressive as the performances themselves, if not more so, are the audaciously effective hour long documentaries which supplement each symphony. Thielemann turns out to be an incredibly thoughtful and inerrantly articulate spokesman, and when one considers the interviewer is one of the most distinguished contemporary German musicologists, Dr. Joachine Kaiser, one becomes privy to almost a Master’s level thesis in musical discourse, from both a theoretical and practical standpoint. This first release is notable, perhaps by design, in combining two of Beethoven’s best known pieces with a symphony that for some odd reason often gets short shrift in critical analyses of Beethoven’s oeuvre, the strangely overlooked Symphony No. 4.

The Fourth Symphony has the unfortunate distinction of being sandwiched between two of the most famous pieces in all of symphonic literature, the Eroica and perhaps the most famous symphony of all time, Beethoven’s Fifth. Like a long ignored sibling who stutters and hems and haws, the Fourth itself starts out with a very hesitant, almost faltering, approach that seems to hint at Beethoven almost taking a musical breather of sorts between two titanic compositional tasks. And yet once the Fourth finally swings into full motion, it turns out to be one of Beethoven’s most effortlessly carefree and lyrical symphonies. Thielemann explores the nooks and crannies of this piece with a really deeply sympathetic ear, drawing the halting melodies of the opening Adagio prelude and the actual Adagio of the second movement with appealing languor. The Fourth’s third movement is probably the most famous of this particular piece, and Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic dance through its ebullience with vigor and élan.

Of course with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, we’re in much more familiar territory, and that is repeatedly a problem for a lot of modern interpreters. How can one approach scores this well known and impart some degree of personality to them without resorting to gimmicks? The answer is quite simple, at least for Thielemann. Both of these readings are impeccable, in a Fürtwanglerian sense, wonderfully, almost magically, controlled without ever sacrificing the passion of any given sequence. Thielemann continually surprises with unexpected tenuti and sudden changes of tempi through both of these Symphonies, but his choices never seem forced or fanciful. How many times have you heard the First Movement of the Fifth? Probably more than you’ll be able remember, but under Thielemann’s baton, it’s suddenly a completely new and remarkable piece, divorced from previous interpretations without being separated from the work’s own intrinsic tradition.

The other remarkable aspect to these readings is the incredible variety of dynamics Thielemann elicits from this expert group of musicians. One expects huge crescendo in famous moments like the Sixth’s storm movement, but what continually delights and engages the listener in these performances is a really fluid and completely conscious awareness of how dynamics can help shape individual lines and indeed the entire architecture of any given symphony. The Vienna Philharmonic responds to these rather incessant (but never annoying) changes with really amazing flexibility, and that responsiveness to Thielemann’s choices help to make these interpretations all the more incisive and invigorating.

It’s fascinating to watch Thielemann conduct. This is obviously a man with a playful spirit, but one who does not suffer fools gladly. Watch how he insists the audience quiets down before he begins any given movement. He’ll just stand there, waiting, waiting, until the coughing, paper rustling and general hubbub have subsided. But then when he conducts he does completely childlike things like covering his mouth in glee as his eyebrows raise to impossible heights. Also note how, though he holds his baton in his right hand, he’s just as apt to lead the orchestra with his left. It’s a sort of ambidextrous virtuosity that makes the conductor as much fun to watch as he is to listen to.

The problem with “yet another” Beethoven Symphony cycle is a lot of people, for better or worse, are going to yawn and ask, “Why, whatever for?” We’ve seen a number of relatively boneheaded attempts to reimagine Beethoven in a post-modernist framework, and it’s actually bracing to have someone like Thielemann show that a resolutely Classical interpretation can still breathe, incredibly so, in fact. These symphonies may seem like a pair of old brown shoes you’ve worn a few too many times, but Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic have brought an incredible amount of spit and polish to them and they’ve rarely looked or sounded this wonderful.

Video Quality

The Fourth was performed in March 2009 and the Fifth and Sixth in April 2010 at Vienna’s ornate but rather cramped looking Musikverein. Offered on Blu-ray with an AVC codec in 1080i and 1.78:1, all three of these concerts (which play right after each other) look splendidly sharp and wonderfully well detailed. Colors are beautifully saturated and fine detail is excellent. Somehow both television directors managed to cram their cameras into somewhat unexpected nooks and crannies (pay attention to just how close the orchestra sits together, and how close they are to the audience), and therefore coverage is really fabulous, including good close-ups of soloists which reveal excellent detail.

Audio Quality

Both the lossless audio options on this Blu-ray, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 and an LPCM 2.0, are, to put it simply, perfect. No subwoofer is utilized in the surround mix, but the low end is still incredibly abundant and the rolling tympani of the Fifth and Sixth come through with appropriate robustness. Fidelity here is simply exceptional, with gorgeously rich horn tones and wonderfully warm strings. The Musikverein has exceptional acoustics and the surround mix offers a very pleasant, lifelike hall ambience that supports and give breath to this incredible music. Balance between the sections is also spot on, and, as discussed above in the main body of the review, dynamic range here is simply phenomenal. Classical music lovers will rejoice in the incredible clarity and precision of both of these lossless tracks.

Special Features and Extras

Discovering Beethoven is without a doubt one of the most excellent pieces of exegesis with regard to both Beethoven in general and these symphonies in particular in recent memory. Split into three segments, each devoted to one symphony, we get Joachim Kaiser and Thielemann discussing The Fourth (1080i; 51:50), Fifth (1080i; 1:03:20) and Sixth (1080i; 57:54) in incredible detail. Even more remarkably, the two discuss other conductors’ interpretations (Bernstein, von Karajan, et al.) and show excerpts from those versions and then contrast them with Thielemann’s own approach. This is some of the most fascinating and in depth musical conversation you’ll ever experience, and it will probably intrigue and entrance you at least as much as the symphonies themselves, which is really saying something.

Overall Score and Recommendation

It’s easy to become blasé when confronted with yet another Beethoven symphony release. Well, to paraphrase a certain actress in Moonstruck, “Snap out of it!” This is one of the most exciting new releases of the year, augmented by a simply fantastic set of documentaries that is both instructive and completely entertaining. I can’t wait to hear the other six symphonies in this cycle. Very highly recommended.

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