Having realised their magnificence I've been obliged to delete my first, slightly sceptical review of the contents of this box. One moral is; don't write a review of something until you've heard it on decent equipment under optimal conditions. But the more fundamental reason for my initial difficulties was that Haitink's exhaustive micro-management of every dynamic detail of these works turns them into something quite unlike any kind of Beethoven I had been acquainted with before. Nothing was quite where or when I had learned to expect it to be. The combination of superb recording and consummate playing gives us performances of remarkable instrumental separation. But add to this Haitink's dynamic control, and a new vision of the full dimensionality of the mechanism by which all the instrumental parts are united springs into relief. Each of the symphonies is revealed to be an exotic new planet which Haitink allows us to set foot and walk upon. It's hard even to conceive of these as being of their period. They could have been written yesterday for all that we can tell. Something I'm sure Ludwig would have been most gratified to witness. Given such a kaleidoscopic depth of detail the usual assessments as to which are the major, and which the minor symphonies are shredded. In this set, there are no minor Beethoven symphonies. For instance, I've always had a soft-spot for the eighth, and an intuition that with the right approach it could be turned into something far more substantial than one typically hears. Haitink obliges with a performance that ranges between alien beauty and a writhing beast. Consequently I've had its strains locked in my head for the past few days now, and I'm in no hurry for them to depart. Similar things could be said for the other works. As I write, the storm has just broken in the latter parts of the sixth, and I am reminded anew of the genuine fear and trembling that this piece can and was meant to evoke.
Another definitive component that I discern in these performances is the timpani used, which are some of the most formidable I have heard. One is used to low thumpish-booms from timpani, which have got crisper over the years as recording and playback technologies have improved. But these things have language skills; their articulating layers of colour and resonance unfold in the ear in the way good wine or coffee does on the palette. The result, often in combination with seriously gruff and biting low strings can give rise to an almost rock-like sound that can really lift one out of one's shoes.
It is a truism that all performances of great works are interpretations. But there are interpretations and interpretations, and these are most certainly interpretations. Period Beethoven they are not. These are re-visionings of canonical masterworks, for the twenty-first century. May the possibility of such re-visionings never end.