These are willful interpretations that - IMHO - say a lot about Christian Thielemann and, occasionally, something important about Ludwig van Beethoven as well.
The performances of the earlier symphonies themselves are episodic, to put it kindly. It's one thing to fail to successfully link the sections of a given symphonic movement together into a whole, thereby unwittingly allowing us hear the seams in a work. It's quite another thing to create seams where none previously existed. This is a real debit in Thielemann's overall approach to the earlier works, IMO, especially as his performances of the later symphonies reflect a more traditional and moderate (read: successful) approach to Beethoven.
In the plus column, Thielemann observes nearly every repeat in every symphony (except the 7th and the 9th - more about this below), and the Vienna Philharmonic sounds wonderful throughout.
On to the works themselves:
Thielemann has no love and carries no brief for Symphonies 1 & 2. I get the feeling that CT would have been fine recording only Symphonies 3 - 9 were that an option. Sym I/iii is raced through with little regard for nuance of any sort. Ensemble problems abound, mostly on the small scale, but they are there.
The overt classicism of the two early symphonies holds no enchantment for Maestro Thielemann. Fast movements are uncomfortably fast, with the slow movements being self-consciously slow. I'm not hearing any great interpretive insights in either symphony. Thielemann seems more concerned with doing a physical impersonation of the "relaxed energy" conducting styles of Carlos Keliber and Wilhelm Furtwängler than attending to what's going on right in front of him. Unfortunately for the listener, Thielemann's relaxation often verges on the indifferent. To me, the relaxation comes off as a cover for a mild narcissism that - while expected in conductors - is striving here for new modes of expression. I wonder if, perhaps, Thielemann will revisit these works later in his career and find more in them than he does at this point in time.
The Eroica is the most successful performance out of the first 3 symphonies. I'm surprised Theilemann didn't double the winds in this symphony. It would have helped the balances in the tutti sections. The first movement suffers from Thielemann pulling the tempos around for no apparent reason other than that the orchestra will follow him. The second movement has suitable gravitas: I felt that the placement of the triplet pick ups in the double basses weren't always placed accurately. The orchestral sound gets a bit rough edged in the louder sections of this symphony. The third movement is highly energetic, with the French horns shining in their exposed calls.
In the Eroica finale, Thielemann provides an extended - and meaningless - unwritten pause before the oboe solo at the Poco andante (bar 348). The camera lingers on Thielemann as he freezes and extends this silence well beyond normal limits. It's a real, "look at me! I'm Christian Thielemann!" moment. You might think that your BD player has suddenly frozen up.
The oboe solo is then launched...and we get more extended visuals of Thielemann conducting. The camera then cuts away to the horns, who are providing supporting harmony for the oboist. The camera next cuts to the clarinet, back to the horns, etc. Who we don't catch a glimpse of is the effing solo oboist! At least not until the very end of the solo, when the camera gives a brief shot of his hands positioned on his horn (without showing his face).
Now, I'm no Agnes Meth - the person who directed this video - but I have to ask: why wouldn't you show the oboist during this solo? Is that too common an idea for this video? Are we making a statement by playing against expectations? I'd like to know.
Throughout these recordings (Symphonies 1 - 3), Thielemann seems particularly unconcerned about maintaining energy through the ends of phrases when those phrases encompass the "fall" that attends the natural rise and fall of a musical line. Oh, he's fine on the "rise" part, where energy is supplied in abundance. But when the musical line falls, the energy underneath it can sag incredibly. It's as if CT's thoughts are focussed on the "next point of interest" for him, a point that perhaps lies 8 to 12 bars in the future. For a person who thinks he's emulating Furtwängler, it's disappointing to hear the results of a conductor NOT being in the moment, at least when that moment represents the fall of a musical line. It's one thing to have a performance going on in your head that isn't being reflected by the group you're leading. It's quite another thing when the group you're leading is the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra whose pedigree in Beethoven performance SHOULD serve to engage even a conductor who has been leading Beethoven performances for decades. Thielemann? Not so much.
Not surprisingly, CT has no problems achieving an overly inflected diminuendo when it is indicated in the score. His diminuendi may be more diminuendi than those of the king of diminuendi! No sagging here. Too bad he doesn't avoid the energy sag elsewhere, ie: where a diminuendo occurs as the result of the musical line, where the composer didn't feel the need to mark a diminuendo because one doesn't mark those things that musicians sort of "get" - hors concours - because they're musicians.
Lest you think I'm singling out CT for such criticism, this problem seems to afflict many of today's conductors. It's more glaring when set against the work of the old-school conductors like Karajan, Walter, Szell and Bernstein, who paid attention and took care of such things as part of their normal modus operandi.
Finally, it bears mentioning that Thielemann has a penchant for speeding up and slowing down at cadential points for no apparent reason other than the fact that the music has reached such a point. These gestures add nothing to the music. In fact, they serve only to turn the spotlight onto CT in a "look what I can do/control" way. I hate to say it, but his is the kind of almost rank musical amateurism one encounters at the local band concert in the park gazebo, where Our Illustrious Locally Born-n-Bred Maestro leads the troops through their paces, imposing his idea of what constitutes an interpretive touch on the proceedings. One would have thought that the massive corrective to such provincialism that the musical world called Arturo Toscanini would have banished such gestures to the remotest of musical outposts. But, no. Here, we are through the looking glass, apparently with unwitting provincialism now channeled through an intellectual process and exiting the other end as the new, studied and intellectually embraced form of provincialism that passes for modern-day musical insight, on display for all to see and hear within the hallowed walls of the Musikvereinsaal itself!
Sound on the disc is excellent, as is the HD picture quality.
Coming to the BD of Symphonies 4 - 6 immediately after the disappointing disc of Symphonies 1-3, I was pleasantly surprised with Thielemann's approach to the Fourth. In fact, let me state right now that the first disc of this set isn't at all representative of the performances encoded on the other 2 BDs in this cycle, which are much more enjoyable, traditional and free of mannerisms, and that I found to be well worth viewing and hearing.
Back to the performance of the 4th: here, the conductor is fully engaged in the proceedings in a way he was not in the first three symphonies of the cycle. Tempi are more judiciously chosen than they were on Disc 1, and save for Thielemann's trademark accelerandi and rallentandi at cadence points (gestures that do nothing to enhance the music), this performance is pretty straight forward.
Thielemann obviously sees the second movement as the core of this symphony, and he lingers over the movement, bestowing ample helpings of love and insight along the way. There is some impressive playing here from the wind soloists - particularly the first clarinet and bassoon - who are often asked to play so quietly that lesser players would find their reeds failing to vibrate. It's a testament to the skill and art of these players that they can maintain a steady and beautiful tone at a dynamic level that strains the physics that lie behind playing reed instruments. Bravi tutti!
The third and fourth movements are simply delightful, reminding me once again why I find this to be my favorite symphony out of the 9. No less an authority than Karajan felt the 4th to be the most-difficult Beethoven symphony to pull of in concert, yet pull it off Thielemann does, in no small part due to the virtuosity of the Vienna Philharmonic. I'm also happy to report that the famous bassoon solo in the 4th movement is not only played for all it's worth, but that the video director allows us to watch the player going through his paces. That director would be the same Agnes Meth who failed to show the oboist going through the paces of his solo in the finale of the Eroica.
After the pleasant surprise of the 4th, Thielemann's 5th comes off as the weakest link in his cycle. The symphony is kick started by Thielemann launching the first movement before the applause that greeted his assuming the podium has subsided. There's a good generalized energy throughout the first movement. But, alas, we soon encounter the sags in energy that afflicted his performances of the First and Second Symphonies. It's a strange phenomenon: in tuttis, the brass peal forth, but the string body seems to lose the edge to its sound that is necessary to keep pace with and provide a counterweight to the brass. One would think the aggressive energy of this movement was self sustaining. Thielemann shows us that we've been taking for granted the performances by conductors who don't let the energy sag in this movement. At the end of the day, Thielemann's approach to this movement doesn't ever gel into a cohesive whole.
There are also changes to the wind personnel, and not for the better. The first-chair oboist is a much-inferior player to the man who graced the earlier works. The exposed oboe solo in V/i is weak and watery. His work in the 6th symphony is also underpowered, stringy and bereft of opulence. A bad choice.
The second movement of the Fifth fares well, but it comes off as being even more episodic than it usually is as Thielemann bends a few tempi, extends phrases and indulges his soloists. Overall, there's nothing to really complain about. Just the renewed belief that most conductors miss the opportunity to make a bit more of this movement, as does Maestro Thielemann.
The third movement falls just short of being a real winner. I could have used more presence from the French horns when they announce their big moment that breaks the quiet tension of the opening bars. Thielemann adopts a slightly slower and steadier tempo when the double basses start their virtuosic lick, which - while adding clarity - puts a bit of a straight jacket on the upward rushes of the violins. There's no edge or sparkle to their sound. Happily, Thielemann does NOT take the unwritten (and unwanted and unnecessary) repeat in this movement that seems to be *de rigueur* with the HIP crowd. Thank you!
The transition to the Finale is clear, but still mysterious. Not as mysterious as Karajan, but good enough.
The Finale itself is launched at a broad tempo that had me salivating at the possibilities. Alas, by the 6th bar, Thielemann has accelerated the tempo into what we normally get in 98% of recordings. Rats! Another opportunity missed! The two subsequent repeats of these opening bars (CT takes the repeat in this movement and the first movement, BTW) find Thielemann trying to again rein in the tempo, but with even less success than he did on its first iteration. One wonders - why even bother? Much of the finale comes off as a mad scramble, with lapses in ensemble mitigated only by the wall of sound coming from the speakers. At the end of it all, we've been treated to a decidedly run-of-the-mill run through of the piece, with a few errant gestures here and there standing in for involvement and depth. I didn't get the sense that Thielemann necessarily likes this piece. Perhaps he thinks it's over done at this point in history.
Thielemann definitely likes the Pastorale, and here, it receives an excellent all-around reading, though I'm beginning to believe that this piece is perhaps bullet proof. One wishes we had a different first oboist in this performance, as he has plenty of solo work to do. CT avoids his tendency to indulge himself and the orchestra in meaningless interpretive gestures. Tempi for each movement are well-judged, and balances are exemplary. That said, the playing doesn't have the sense of spontaneity that marks all really great performances of the Pastorale. The humor of the country band in the third movement is an on-paper humor here, not a fully realized aural humor. The strings make no effort to imitate the raw drone of a hurdy gurdy in the opening of the 5th movement. The 4th-movement's storm is more of a summer shower than the tree-toppling cataclysm we get from Karajan and others. Overall, the playing is a hair too cultured: a busman's holiday of a trip to the country, not necessarily a week spent working at the dude ranch.
Still, I would recommend this BD for the great sound and picture quality, even if the performances have been bettered elsewhere. Others may not be as off-put as am I about certain aspects of Thielemann's interpretive choices.
BD 3 gives us the final three symphonies in the cycle.
Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic turn in an exemplary performance of the 7th Symphony. It's the most-straight-forward performance to date in the cycle. Thielemann's tempo for the opening "Poco sostenuto" is a bit faster than most, and it builds confidently into the "Vivace" proper. He ignores the repeat (bar 176) that would return us back to the start of the Vivace and moves ahead into the remainder of the movement. Everything is well played and well balanced. Our oboist from the Pastorale even does a better job here (though I could have done with more wind presence throughout the Symphony).
The famous "Allegretto" is very enjoyable, with Thielemann taking a moderate view of the staccato markings that sit over the string parts. No complaints here. Just sit back and enjoy a great orchestra playing some great music to a tee.
The ensuing "Presto" is crisp, clean and exciting, even at a slightly slower tempo than the norm. While Thielemann observes most of the small repeats within sections of this movement, he ignores the "big" first repeat (bar 145) that leads back to the edge of the movement, and takes the second ending into the "Assai meno presto." This more-relaxed section of the movement is a real winner, with the brass ringing forth in splendor when required. The string writing in the off beats is well-weighted here. It all adds up to a powerful - and life-affirming - bit of music making.
The Finale is played for all its worth, and at a fair clip. Not as manic as Karajan and Abbado in their later Berlin recordings, but exciting, none the less. Thieleman ignores the "Dal segno" first ending (bar 121) that would return us to the start of the movement - a choice that I generally agree with - and forges on. The only debit in the movement is Thielemann's slowing the tempo to accommodate the quick 16th-note writing for the strings whenever it occurs, while accelerating in places free of these specific technical challenges. I would have preferred a steady tempo that accommodated both. But over all, there's little to complain about and much to admire here, as Thielemann seems to be truly coming into his own in the later Beethoven symphonies.
The Eighth Symphony also finds Thielemann on his best behavior, turning in yet another straight forward interpretation. There are many, many fine recordings of this symphony, a symphony that seems to be more appreciated than it is loved, and that has always suffered in the shadow of the 9th that follows it. Thielemann's performance marks another recommendable addition to the catalog, and in fantastic sight and sound, to boot.
Thielemann offers one of the best 9ths to come down the pike in a number of years. It's well-balanced, lyrical and energetic.
Those expecting the cataclysmic look into the abyss as provided by Bernstein's or Karajan's approach to the first movement will need to look elsewhere. There's no subtext to Thielemann's approach. This is absolute music, as it were. Where some see a Genesis-like beginning of the universe, Thielemann sees D Minor. There's nothing wrong with this approach, though it does tend to play down dramatic elements and effects that loom large in many other versions. There are the usual Theilemann underlinings of tempo changes and dynamics that I've come to expect in his Beethoven, along with his ignoring certain indications in Beethoven's own hand, opting to go his own way, as it were. Once one accepts that reality, things do fall into place.
The Second movement (Molto vivace) is just a tad slower than most, and that makes for a good deal of clarity in hearing the orchestra lines. Thielemann takes the first repeat (bar 150) that takes us back to the beginning of the movement, while ignoring the additional big first repeat (bar 388) later on. Overall, very enjoyable on every level.
The third movement is treated lovingly by Thielemann, reinforcing my feeling that this movement is the real center of this symphony. There are too many nice touches here to enumerate them all. Suffice to say that I felt compelled to listen to this movement again when it came to its conclusion...but I couldn't do that, as Thielemann segues directly into the Finale.
The Finale is very well done, and one can basically just sit back and enjoy the proceedings. The solo quartet is a bit above average, with the bass being too light, the soprano being too physically manic (though it doesn't effect her singing) the tenor being quite good and the alto...well, who ever really hears the alto? The chorus is also quite good and offers in-tune singing and tonal variety in abundance.
As usual there are a few novel choices by Thielemann. His solution to bridging the tempo change between the slower "Alla marcia" of the tenor solo and the ensuing (and quick) Fugato is to accelerate to the quick tempo of the Fugato over the final bars of the music for the tenor soloist and men's chorus (bars 96-101 of the Alla marcia section). It's not the usual solution, but it works. And while some may quibble that his final "Maestoso" is too Maestoso (it is, if one follows what Beethoven actually indicated), it's perfectly acceptable and in line with how most conductors treat this final choral utterance before the closing Prestissimo.
Over all, this is a pretty good set, even when put against the non-Blu Ray/video options out there. That said, it is pricey (my son got it for me as a Father's Day gift for $97, but the price has now climbed to $114 on amazon for the complete Blu Ray cycle). For those with unlimited funds, I would say go for it. For those on a stricter budget, I would suggest trying the discs in their reverse order, with the third BD (Symphonies 7 - 9) being the best and the first BD (Symphonies 1 -3 ) being the runt of the litter. Were I looking for ONE Beethoven Symphony cycle on video, I would probably recommend Abbado's BPO version from Rome, though there is no BD option right now, only DVD (On edit: the Abbado set was released on BD in 2013).
I've watched a few snippets from the various "Discovering Beethoven" extras included on each BD - they're rudimentary stuff aimed at the novice listener. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, if novice listeners make up the market for classical BDs.