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James Reel
Fanfare, November 2011

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 7, 8 and 9 (with documentaries) (Vienna Philharmonic, Thielemann) (NTSC) 705108
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 7, 8 and 9 (with documentaries) (Vienna Philharmonic, Thielemann) (Blu-ray, HD) 705204

If you’re looking for a Beethoven symphony set that is a superb package, the Thielemann release is clearly better than nearly anything else on the market.

The video and audio production is outstanding, with the string-heavy orchestral balance obviously Thielemann’s choice rather than that of the engineers. The camera angles are well judged, the cuts keyed logically to the score… The sharpness of the focus is remarkable, especially in the shots of Thielemann against a very crisp background of audience and hall.

…the fact that this installment of Thielemann’s Beethoven cycle—entering a market overloaded with Beethoven cycles—makes me want to investigate the rest of the series is high recommendation indeed.

Barnaby Rayfield
Fanfare, November 2011

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…

…the Vienna Philharmonic plays beautifully…The soloists in the Ninth are also good. Annette Dasch is an especially vibrant and animated performer…The chorus sings with clean precision…

Thielemann is pretty swift throughout these symphonies…

Robert Cummings
MusicWeb International, May 2011

This is the final instalment in Christian Thielemann’s Beethoven Symphony cycle. Much the same interpretive style is in evidence here as in the first and second volumes: Thielemann tends to use a fairly liberal amount of rubato throughout these scores, including protracted rests, while incorporating a wide range of dynamics, often with sound levels dropping quickly and then swelling gradually back to mezzo-forte or forte. He also takes a more Romantic view of these symphonies than most other conductors. In addition, he manages to attain the highest performance standards from the orchestra, as attacks are potent and crisp, intonation seemingly perfect and playing ever so accurate. Some claim the Vienna Philharmonic is the greatest orchestra in the world, and while I won’t endorse or dispute that assertion, I will say that this Beethoven cycle would be strong evidence to support the contention.

The first movement of the Seventh is given a muscular performance, but with plenty of bounce to the rhythms. The Poco sostenuto introduction is paced somewhat briskly, as has been common since the 1980s, and the main Vivace section opens with fine work from the flautist. The strings and horns impart a glorious sense to the joyous main theme and the whole movement is utterly electric. The ensuing Allegretto has a stately character in its unhurried tempo, emerging from ominous mystery at the outset and building toward a dignified beauty, all in brilliant playing.

The Scherzo abounds in vigour, but there is an undertow of weightiness that eventually comes from the percussion and double-basses to offer contrast. The Trio offers rather staid music and it rings out with epic character. Thielemann conducts the finale at what would be described as a moderate tempo today, as opposed to the more breathless accounts by Abbado/Berlin and others. The approach works well here, the music coming across with plenty of energy and wit, and with a final sense of triumph. This is one of the finest accounts of the Seventh on record.

The joyous Eighth Symphony is a delight here. While this is quite a light work, there is, once again, a certain weightiness of approach. But it works: with minute tempo manipulations and deftly controlled dynamics, Thielemann shows that happy music can have muscle and big climactic moments that smile all the more. The finale is a gem: fleet, invigorating and with some of the most perfect orchestral playing you’re likely to encounter in this work.

The Ninth is a prime vehicle for Thielemann’s generally epic approach to Beethoven. The orchestral playing exhibits the usual perfection and commitment from the VPO in all movements, and the vocal quartet in the finale, despite their lack of star power, are generally quite convincing. Annette Dasch was especially outstanding. The chorus is fine too. To back up a moment…The Scherzo has a relatively leisurely tempo, but plenty of weightiness. Still, some may find this movement lacking a bit in drive. The third movement is also very broadly paced, but here Thielemann imparts a richer sense of Romanticism, which he is attempting to restore in Beethoven. On the whole, this Ninth is a splendid performance, possibly ranking with the best. Overall, consensus will have it that this cycle of the Beethoven nine symphonies will stand among the finest ever, I predict.

The sound in this set is so vivid throughout, so lifelike that you can hear the minutest detail: a couple of minutes or so into the first movement of the Ninth Symphony (track 14 - 118:30) the principal clarinettist in an idle moment blows against his instrument twice to clear it, and if you listen attentively, you can hear these breathy swishes quite distinctly amid the other considerable orchestral activity. That might be better than being there in a front row seat for the concert. Bravo, engineers! I’m glad no members of the orchestra were experiencing indigestion that night! The camera work is also excellent, always offering pertinent shots of soloists, instrumentalists or sections.

The bonus feature on this disc, Discovering Beethoven, contains almost three hours of commentary on the three symphonies by Thielemann and musicologist Joachim Kaiser. It is a considerable add-on, well worth your while.

…this would probably be my top choice, not least because of the superior sound and obvious advantages of video. In sum, this is the third and final leg in an historic musical event.

Lawrence Devoe, April 2011

The Performance

The final three Beethoven symphonies, all previously available on DVD, see their first Blu-ray release with this set. As I have previously seen and heard the Christian Thielemann and Wiener Philharmoniker collaboration, I was anticipating yet another outstanding installment in this series. To let the cat out of the bag, I was not disappointed. If there is a better ensemble playing Beethoven today, I have not heard it. This was Beethoven’s original venue for his symphonies, the players have this music in their DNA, and it definitely shows.

Symphony No. 7 (A major, Op.92), completed in 1812, has sometimes been called the “Dance Symphony,” not because it contains actual dances but rather because of the rhythmic pulses which run throughout. This is no better displayed than in the syncopated section of the second movement allegretto. Symphony No. 8 (F Major, Op.93) was written almost concurrently with its predecessor but in a throw-back style that recalls the classicism of Mozart or Haydn, sporting a third movement in the style of a minuet. Symphony No. 9 (F Minor, Op. 125) also known as the “Choral Symphony,” broke entirely new ground in the symphonic literature by incorporating a sung final movement featuring a chorus and four soloists, in this case, Annette Desch (soprano), Mihoko Fujimara (contralto), Piotr Beczala (tenor), and Georg Zeppenfeld (bass) who reprise Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” These recordings, dating back to 2009 (Symphonies Seven and Eight) and 2010 (Symphony Nine), are carried off at a world class level that justifiably brought audiences to their feet.

Video Quality

The performances benefit from being in one of the most videogenic venues in the world, the Gold Room of the Musikverein in Vienna. The directors, Agnes Meth and Michael Beyer present a balanced view of conductor, orchestra, and soloists, giving a good impression of the performance and its venue. The videography is generally sharp and focused with an appropriate mix of panoramas, angles and close ups. It would be literally impossible to watch the Ninth Symphony and not leave with a sense of exhilaration and being part of the moment.

Audio Quality

As with the other performances in this series, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack gives an excellent sense of space. Surround effects are minimal and the audience is very well behaved. The orchestral presentation is up front and well spread across the front speakers. The absence of a subwoofer channel aids the bass clarity significantly and should be considered in more orchestral recordings. The soloists and chorus in the 9th Symphonyare clearly recorded. Of the vocal quartet, the star is Polish tenor Beczala whose clarion voice soars over the proceedings. The others singers are at least adequate colleagues, with contralto Fujimara being somewhat on the lightweight side both literally and figuratively. Maestro Thielemann understands the chamber music elements in all of these pieces and through careful modulation allows the individual inner orchestral voices to be heard most distinctly. His touch adds intimacy to these otherwise larger than life works and brings listeners closer to hearing Beethoven’s original intentions.

Supplemental Materials

There is nearly three hours of informative commentary provided by maestro Thielemann and Joachim Kaiser, a world-renowned music authority. For those less familiar with this music, it is illuminating to hear their take on these Beethoven masterpieces. I only wish more classical Blu-rays would provide this kind of extra material.

The Definitive Word


This Blu-ray disc concludes a truly magnificent set of Beethoven symphonies. The musicianship is top notch, as expected from Christian Thielemann and the Wiener Philharmoniker. It is fascinating to watch these performances in succession and track the continued development of Beethoven as composer. Five hours of music and commentary might seem like a lot but when you are dealing with music making of this quality and commentary this insightful, it is a small investment of your life. Beethoven’s symphonies are the bread and butter of a lot of European orchestras, but the Wiener Philharmoniker and Christian Thielemann perform at a caviar level. The soloists in the Choral Symphony may not be the best in the world, but their contribution to this work is commendable and, ultimately, pleasurable. The competition for video performances of the late Beethoven symphonies is stiff and includes legends like von Karajan and Bernstein, While there will always be debate about which cycle is the best, taken as a whole, this final trilogy from the greatest symphonic composer who ever lived is one to treasure and watch repeatedly, enhanced by added visual and sonic values of Blu-ray technology.

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