[Please note: when this review was originally written on 30 October the advertised price was a little over £24.00. I notice that the price is now advertised at £42.98 on 18/12/07. Should this not be a mistake in pricing then the Mackerras set immediately becomes much less of a bargain and indeed the CfP set or the Zinman is a much better buy. At the £40 plus price range I would actually recommend Norrington on Haenssler - and see my review of this.]
With Mackerras' RLPO cycle on EMI retailing for about half the price of this set, and the Zinman/Zurich set at roughly £15.00 one might ask if this set is worth buying. The answer is an emphatic "Yes!"
Sir Charles' approach is the currently fashionable "lean beef" Beethoven using a small orchestra and the Barenreiter/Del Mar edition of the music. Where it scores over his earlier cycle is in a greater intensity of concentration and rather finer sound. Each of these symphonies was recorded at the Edinburgh Festival at special concerts that featured only one Beethoven symphony at a time. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are, thus, not coming to the work tired at the end of a longish concert, and the special atmosphere of live music making is almost palpable.
Yes, Zinman is good: well recorded and very good value. But there are certain elements that might pall on repitition. The oboe decorations in the early symphonies and especially in the first movement of the Fifth obviously stand out as controversial here, as does the hectic speed of the Trio in the second movement of the Ninth (Zinman follows the interpretation of the metronome marking that Benjamin Zander took several years ago with the Boston Philharmonic recording - not I think now available) and the lack of weight overall in the chamber sized orchestra used for the Ninth.
Makerras uses the Philharmonia for the last and greatest symphony, and it is a decision that pays off remarkably well. They match and even cap, the work of the fine Scottish ensemble in the other eight. Throughout there is nothing fussy about Mackerras (as perhaps might be said of Zinman) who offers very direct and stimulating performances of the very highest quality. There is not a weak performance in the entire set.
British reviewers have tended to award semi-sainthood status to elderly and loved conductors in the past (Wand, Boult, Handley and now Mackerras) but do not be put off by any gushing reviews that you might read. The way this music is presented fully justifies them! This is one of the best Beethoven cycles currently available and you will not regret buying it.