This new set has been long and highly awaited. When news came through Gramophone that a new cycle was being recorded, I was filled with excitement. Furtwangler, Karajan (1963 and 1977), Klemperer and Toscanini to name the justly great cycles of Beethoven came back to mind. Being recorded live, it is bound to be a set filled with high charge energy. The above would have been recorded in the old school of performance whereas it was expected that Rattle would try out a combination of the VPO's rich and lustrous tone and tradition with new performance practice, not to mention the new text edition by Jonathan del Mar. And in this he does. In certain parts of the symphonies, you will hear the rich tones associated with the VPO but in certain areas, you will be surprised! Abbado's new DG set and DVD cycle uses the new del Mar edition as well.
With Sir Simon Rattle, one would expect an energetic and interpretations full of delight and surprises. Which is exactly what one would get listening to the first 2 symphonies. Full of verve and wit and swift tempos, they are a sheer delight. Being a live recording the audience was clearly there with them - no intrusions from the audience throughout.
The 1st movement of the Eroica comes through with energy and power. Klemperer and Giulini come to mind in this and although the speeds are distinctly different, the merits in these recordings are clear. What I missed in this Eroica was the intensity which the Gramophone reviewer Richard Osborne mentioned in his review of one of the actual concerts. If I had not known of that performance, I would be inclined to think that this was a good Eroica performance and as such, it should be.
The 4th symphony is swift in tempos and freshly projected but lacking in the rich sound and articulation in Karajan's 1963 set and Abbado's recent DG set.
The ideas and interpretation in the 5th Symphony in this new set sounds more connected than the earlier release (also under EMI). In that earlier release which was coupled with a Brahms Violin Concerto with Kyung Wha Chung, the mix of old and new was too much and too many. It was clear that one would not be getting a reading with the momentum to carry you through.
The Pastoral in this new set is a wonder. The Awakening of cheerful
feelings on arriving in the country and Scene by the Brook is as delightful as it can get. It was sheer delight and the build up to the Storm section was superbly done culminating with a real feeling of peace and serenity in the finale. The cellos are wonderfully nursed in the finale and being Giulini's assistant back in the Los Angeles Philhamonic, I would have expected no less. Listen to Giulini's wonder Pastoral issued in 1994 with the La Scala Philharmonic under Sony Classical. I would have loved to be in the audience at the Vienna performance.
The 7th symphony is only occasionally satisfying. The antiphonal lay out of the violins do pay dividends in the 1st movement but somehow I found it lacking in power (listen to Carlos Kleiber's VPO recording(DG Originals) or Karajan in 1963(DG), Toscanini's with the New York issued by Naxos and Sir Colin Davis (EMI)). The 2nd movement is not as moving and memorable as it should but this does not take away the force and momentum in the Allegro con brio finale.
Somehow I feel that the 2nd movement in all the symphonies except for the 9th could have been done a bit better. Listen to the concerto cycle with Brendel(Philips) and you will see what I mean. In that set, Rattle had Brendel who played brilliantly in the slow movements. However this does not in anyway undermine the performances in this new set which I am listening to for the umpteenth time.
The 8th symphony comes across with thrilling projection and excitement. Only in the Allegretto Scherzando did I find the reading subdued but no problems with the Allegro Vivace.
The 9th symphony is packed with drama and tension and the first 2 movements was wonderfully played. But certain parts of the symphony I missed some details which are clearly audible in the slow movements - listen to Abbado's wonderful BPO performance (recently issued by TDK DVD) at the 10th European Concert and issued as part of Abbado's DVD Beethoven cycle. The finale is memorable for a fine performance not only from the soloists but also from the City of Birmingham chorus under Simon Halsey.
It is clear that this is a set to keep worthy for the Pastoral, Eroica, Choral and the first 2 symphonies. I await eagerly when Rattle would get a chance to record with his new orchestra and when his ideas and style would be grafted into the playing of the BPO in the years to come. Rattle does indeed take you on a journey of discovery and along the way, surprises, delight, excitement and disappointment comes to mind and for the price, it is a journey worth undertaking every few years once! Bon voyage!