I bought all these recordings separately before this set was available. These performances are certainly amongst the most distinctive and successful accounts of these symphonies in the last ten years. Their issue is a major event, an event of importance. I listen to them often and find myself reacting - and strongly! - differently each time. Sometimes I love them and at others I feel some reservations. They are very serious readings.
So what do you get in this set? Superb playing. Excellent modern sound. And a consistently brilliant set of interpretations by someone who really has something new and intelligent to say about Beethoven's symphonies. Vanska's way is to bring out the rhythms very clearly and to clarify textures. Lots of conductors have something new to say in Beethoven but I have come across few sets that consistently bring moments of new insight in the way that Vanska's do. He can be (and frequently is) very exciting and wild ... frightening even ... . His accounts all seem to me to strongly bring out the distinctive character of the work so what you get is nine very different symphonies - each distinctive for itself rather than for Vanska's voice.
Vanska's approach is, I feel, very much an affair of the head ... and in some moods I can find it too analystical. Where is the heart? I wonder. But then, in another mood, I listen again and am just bowled over.
The set is remarkably consistent. There is no dud performance here. Every performance is stunning and special. For me, though, Symphonies 3, 4, 5 and 9 are more obvious winners - and can be safely recommended to all. Some of the others are special but perhaps in a more specialised way and to recommend them as an only account of the works seems more problematic: they need to be heard but it is hard to recommend them as the only version for your collection.
There can never be definitive accounts of these works (thank God!) but to enter this field you have to have something new, coherent and inspiring to say - Vanska's accounts do this more than most and will remain milestones in the history of great Beethoven recordings. They will not be to all tastes but they demand to be heard.Read more ›
In this review I will try to compare various complete recordings of Beethoven's nine symphonies plus Carlos Kleiber's CD with Symphonies number 5 and 7 (on DG). Concerning Carlos Kleiber it is easily done: I will advice anybody who appreciates Beethoven (or who think they might appreciate Beethoven) to buy his CD. I doubt you can find better versions of those two works. When I mention Karajan in this review I refer only to his first complete set of Beethoven's symphonies for DG from 1963 with the Berliner Philharmoniker. The other complete sets I will write about are: Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra (Bis), Jos van Immerseel and Anima Eterna (Zig Zag), David Zinman and Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (Arte Nova), Herbert Blomstedt and Staatskapelle Dresden (Brilliant). All orchestras mentioned here perform on modern instruments except Immerseel's Anima Eterna.
I will go through the symphonies one by one and give short comments on the various recordings. I will start in reverse order since I guess most people will be interested in the late symphonies primarily.
Karajan plays a terrific and grand 9th ("Choral") - his wild gestures and colourful style fit the work well - he is a true romantic in the first romantic symphony in musical history. It is the only 9th I have heard in which all the movements really shine, for instance in Vanska's recording only the two last movements really work for me, but then again those two are amazing - you can hear every polyphonic detail in the choral finale. Immerseel gives us a good "slim" 9th (only 33 musicians in the orchestra which though is 9 more than in the other symphonies). Zinman's recording lacks verve and excitement in the two first movements, but his adagio is pretty and the finale is gripping. A special feature in Zinman's 9th is that he plays it with Beethoven's original general pause in bar 747. Blomstedt plays a vibrant 9th with a beautiful truly romantic adagio (16+ minutes long like Karajan's) and a glorious finale. Thomas Dausgaard with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra Örebro (on Simax as part of a complete recording of Beethoven's orchestral music which I am NOT reviewing here) is - as a whole - the best recent (2009) 9th I have heard, but text and translation of Schiller's ode are not included in the booklet. Some might say that the scherzo in Dausgaard's hands is too aggressive, but I find it fresh and spirited.
Zinman gives you a good 7th but not a great one. The winning set in the 7th is no doubt Immerseel's who's ravishing exhilarating account is full of verve and vigour. Richard Wagner described this symphony as "the apotheosis of dance" and he had/has a point: This is a symphony that demands a "mobile" orchestra - a dancing orchestra. And here Immerseel and Anima Eterna have the advantage of a smaller orchestra that can really dance. Vanska's version of the 7th really disappointed me. It is simply boring - he plays it too slowly. But if you buy Carlos Kleiber's 7th in addition to Vanska's complete cycle you will be doing just fine. What I have said about the 7th also could be said about the 8th - again Immerseel's interpretation is the more lively. But I don't think you will be disappointed in this symphony with either Karajan, Zinman, Vanska or Blomstedt. Karajan's 7th and 8th are highlights of his set.
Karajan's approach is much too heavy for the "Pastoral" (the 6th Symphony). Same thing can be said about Blomstedt's. Vanska's is the best version of this light-hearted symphony (a rare example of program music in Beethoven's oeuvre). Vanska's "Scene by the brook" (the title of the 2nd movement) has a beautiful, tranquil and romantic atmosphere that I find very appealing. I didn't like the "Pastoral" before I heard Vanska conduct it. "The merry gathering of the country folk" is as merry as it should be and "Thunder Storm" really sounds like thunder. Zinman isn't bad in this one either, the 1st movement in particular conveys the "Pleasant, cheerful feelings which awaken in people on arrival in the country" to the listener.
In the first movement of the famous 5th Immerseel plays very fast (maybe too fast) and takes no prisoners. It is a very extreme approach, but it does appeal to me somehow especially because the rest of the symphony seems to follow as a logic conclusion. Vanska plays it slower and gives you time to both try to feel and figure out what Beethoven intended with this work. Karajan might be overdoing it a little bit in the 5th, but it is certainly not boring. Zinman plays the fast movements almost as fast as Immerseel and presents a decent 5th, although I miss some grandeur when it should reach its climax in the 4th movement.
I am not very enthusiastic about Beethoven's 4th Symphony, but maybe I just haven't listened to it enough to get to know it better. The recording I will choose to get to know it better will probably be Vanska's. . In the 3rd Symphony ("Eroica") Vanska slowly builds up tension creating a truly heroic feeling - definitely my favourite.
The 1st and 2nd Symphonies are not core repertoire Beethoven and I suppose most performers don't really care too much about them. At least when I listen to them they only really make sense and appeal to me in the hands of Osmo Vanska.
I almost forgot about Herbert Blomstedt. Maybe because his cycle is forgettable in the sense that it just repeats an approach similar to Karajan's.
When it comes to sound Anima Eterna's set is definitely the winner. Not only because it has the best recording technique, but also because the small orchestra enables you to hear every single instrument in the orchestra. With larger orchestras the sound becomes somewhat blurred and you can't tell which instruments are playing what. As I said the Karajan set discussed here was recorded in 1963. Blomstedt's is from the late `70s (the 9th from 1980), Zinman's is from the `90s, Immerseel's and Vanska's were both recorded in the beginning of the new millennium and are of course superior in terms of sound quality.
So my recommendation: Jos van Immerseel with Anima Eterna is the best overall set, but if you don't like the idea of period instruments and a small ensemble choose Osmo Vanska with the Minnesota Orchestra. In addition to that buy Carlos Kleiber's 5th and 7th and Karajan's or Dausgaard's 9th.Read more ›
When faced with suspicious-looking "complementary feeding stuff for use in cats" or pet medication camouflaged with chunks of mouth-watering food, my cat gives it a searching stare and a long sniff; and finally, after pawing the floor in a sign of disgust, he proudly struts away. That is what I also do (well, more or less) when it comes to all manner of blurbs, puffs or other marketing gimmicks.
This time, though, I thought I couldn't ignore so much extravagant praise coming from so many respectable quarters. To cite only three examples: the venerable "Gramophone" gushed: "Here concludes one of the finest available Beethoven symphony cycles [...] a Beethoven reforged for today's world"; the informative "American Record Guide" enthused: "It's hard to think of a more distinguished Beethoven cycle by an American orchestra since the legendary Toscanini traversal of 1939 [...] a magnificent traversal that seems very much of and for our own time"; and the trend-setting "New York Times" opined: "[... ] it may be the definitive one of our time. Here is the first disc documenting the exciting work Mr. Vänskä is doing in Minnesota: the hook is less the latest surround technology than the exciting, involved playing."
Now I know I bought all the praise (and the Vänskä set along with it) without seeing the rationale behind it. And when I was listening to these taut, fleet-footed, well-engineered and unrelievedly bland readings, it suddenly dawned on me that the reviewers were right: this is, undeniably, a set of Beethoven symphonies that is "very much of and for our own time" or, better still, "for today's world"; and, as such, it may very well be the definitive recording of these magnificent works for the first half of the 21st century.
In fact, the longer I listened to the set, the more convinced I was that Mr. Vänskä, a first-rate conductor with several superb Sibelius recordings under his belt, had approached the orchestra with all the clinical passion of a CPA briefing a bunch of corporate honchos on recent CIT developments, the most effective tax shelters and a host of other technicalities. To be honest, I find it difficult to blame Mr. Vänskä for having acted in good faith and ensured what we - today's world, that is - expect or are expected to expect from a well-regarded contemporary artist, i.e. thorough preparation and flawless execution. What else can we ask for? After all, isn't that what we expect of all true professionals or indeed ourselves?
Or perhaps Mr. Vänskä could have used an alternative approach (just a thought), throwing all caution to the winds and risking abuse and scorn instead of attracting universal praise? Perhaps he should have told his Minnesota players point-blank: "Look, let's not kid ourselves - no matter how hard we try, there's no way we can beat the Berlin Phil or the Vienna Phil at their own game. We're no match for that relentless martinet Arturo Toscanini with his impeccably drilled outfit or his faithful disciple Georg Szell and the immaculate Clevelanders. We can't hope to outplay Carlos Kleiber and the dazzling Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the Fifth's "Allegro con brio" or the Seventh's "Presto" if we accept their own terms. And we certainly don't want to imitate the likes of Gardiner, Harnoncourt, Norrington, Hogwood, Immerseel or Zinman and produce some sort of beefed-up Haydn or Pergolesi on speed. Rather than striving for perfection and wasting time on minutiae, let's concentrate on the spiritual side of things. Let's not be afraid to trust our own feelings and emotions, however corny this might sound. C'mon, let's play the socks off these much-abused warhorses and infuse them with the passion, pride, defiance and dignity which these works cry out for and without which they don't have a life of their own."
And yet, like Gardiner or Harnoncourt before him, Mr. Vänskä chose to put his Beethoven on a low-cal diet, opting for brisk tempi, lean sound, transparent textures, clipped phrasing and precise articulation. While his is a perfectly valid approach, we should keep in mind that there is nothing original or particularly interesting about it. Indeed, Arturo Toscanini and Georg Szell, both of whom had pursued these objectives long before the so-called authentic performance movement came to the fore, achieved their stupendous results with much greater orchestral virtuosity and expressive power.
Be that as it may, if poetry expressed in sound is what you crave in music, steer clear of full sets and search for great recordings on separate discs instead, such as Carlos Kleiber's superlative rendition of the "Fifth" and the "Seventh" with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG); Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1942 live performance of the "Ninth" with the Berlin Philharmonic (Music & Arts), famed for its earth-shattering finale; Carlo Maria Giulini's incandescent "Fifth" with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (DG); Karl Böhm's spine-tingling "Sixth" with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG); and various other brilliant interpretations too numerous to mention here.
Yet if you feel you must own a full set, try Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic (DG, decent stereo sound from the early 1960s), Herbert Blomstedt/Staatskapelle Dresden (Brilliant Classics, excellent stereo sound from the 1970s) or Daniel Barenboim/Staatskapelle Berlin (Warner Classics, crystalline digital sound from 1999). Unless you're squeamish about dated mono sound, you might want to consider a freshly remastered United Archives or Music & Arts set featuring Bruno Walter's studio recording of eight Beethoven symphonies with the white-hot New York Philharmonic and one symphony (a ravishing 1946 account of the "Sixth") with the Philadelphia Orchestra at its fabulous best.
Or stick with the Vänskä set if you like your Beethoven lean, sterile and devoid of emotion.Read more ›