I'll come right out and say straight away that I'm no expert on the symphonies of the great man, because nowadays I spend far more of my musical hours listening to renaissance and baroque music than to this new-fangled 19th-century stuff. But, as a young chap a few years back, I was brought up on Beethoven, mainly through recordings from such as Furtwängler, Klemperer, Karajan, and later also Carlos Kleiber and Harnoncourt for some of the individual symphonies. So I can't lay claim to the kind of knowledge about the vast range of available recordings enjoyed by some other reviewers, and least of all to any ability to draw comparisons with other recent sets; I simply judge this recording on its merits as I hear them.
That said, I think Thielemann's set is absolutely terrific. I like the conductor's approach to Beethoven, he has plenty to say about the music, and his individual touches and eccentricities - portamenti, rallentandi, dynamic variations and the like - always feel as if they arise naturally from the music itself, rather than being imposed upon it. Gentle, subtle and lyrical where appropriate, he and his players are just as good at conveying the furious energy of the great revolutionary, and there's certainly no way you would get bored listening to this set. The Wiener Philharmoniker are a wonderful orchestra and the sound they make is quite splendid, as is the recording quality. The ambience of these live recordings adds feeling and atmosphere to the proceedings, with ambient noise noticeable before and between movements - musicians shifting and preparing, instruments being positioned, a few chairs creaking, the evident presence of an extremely well-behaved Vienna audience - but with no disturbance or noticeable disadvantages whatever.
Taking the works one by one, I've been especially pleased with those symphonies which I have tended to hear less frequently over the years. The fleetness and agility of the quick movements of numbers 1 and 2 are beautifully captured, with a terrific coda to the last movement of the Second. Again, I particularly enjoyed the Fourth; I never paid it a great deal of attention before, but love its sunlit landscape in this performance. Moving on to (for me) more familiar territory, the Eroica is superb here - the first movement especially fine, with orchestral playing and sound quality both splendid, and a thrilling coda. In the Marcia funebre, the fugato passage at around 8 minutes is quite wonderful. The Fifth symphony is brilliant too, with many fine moments such as the first horn call in the opening movement, the brass wonderful in stating the main subject of the third movement, and likewise the lower strings in the Trio. Altogether this is a fabulous Fifth, one of monumental impetus and excitement.
In the Pastoral, I especially appreciated the lovely instrumental work from the woodwinds. The third movement is splendid, with a terrific peasants' dance, an exciting storm and a lovely transition as it subsides. Overall, I think this is a decent but perhaps unexceptional Sixth, with enough high points and eccentricities to hold the attention. The Seventh is superb; highlights for me are the coda of the first movement, and everything about the Allegretto - wonderful right from the start with full, rich chords from the lower strings and marvellous impetus throughout. The third movement is superbly athletic, with splendid flow and nothing to impede its light-footed energy. The Eighth I found a bit disappointing, somewhat lacking in brio and overall just about OK; but then it's not really one of my favourites.
The Ninth is a great success - inspiring, deeply considered, never at any point routine or pedestrian. The first movement is as exciting as can be, and altogether magnificent. The Adagio is terrific, especially as it nears the end. In the final movement, I love the wonderfully rhetorical opening statements from this orchestra, just as good as any I've ever heard. The soloists are respectable, and the choir of the Wiener Singverein are simply superb, especially from "Seid umschlungen". The Allegro passage from around 18 minutes goes with a tremendous swing, with great joyous calls of "Freude" towards the close. This is an all-embracing and deeply satisfying Ninth.
The accompanying "making of" DVD is a great asset to this set. It's a 44-minute documentary with interviews (with a choice of German or English voice-over), rehearsals and concert excerpts - the switches between the latter two especially entertaining when, for example, we see Thielemann rehearsing his orchestra in a rugby shirt, then cut to the same passage with him conducting the concert in the regulation penguin outfit, and back again. Thielemann has plenty of interest to say in the interview sections, for example about his kind of synthesis between Romantic and HIP approaches with, of course, his own ideas added to the mix; and about the reasons for his scepticism over Ludwig's metronome markings.
Best of all in this DVD, I thought, were the rehearsal scenes - especially impressive for me are the conductor's terrific rapport with the orchestra and his attention to the minutest details. We see the players react as one to a Thielemann look, a raised eyebrow, a change of expression or a slight movement of the hand or finger; and you get the feeling that they can, and will, do just about anything for him. Has this obvious mastery of his orchestra been achieved, as with certain notorious tyrants of musical history, by ruthless means of intimidation, humiliation and deprivation which, of course, we're not allowed to see? Or is it a result of the genuine admiration, commitment and devotion of his musicians? Well, he seems like a nice enough bloke, and the players who are interviewed have only good things to say about their conductor; so, unless the video producers have perpetrated an outrageously cunning deception upon us, I'm guessing it's very much the latter rather than the former explanation. But altogether it's gripping and impressive stuff, especially revealing in demonstrating the calm, reflective sincerity of Thielemann's approach to his own task and to the master's music.
In addition to the fascinating insights of the DVD, then, the distinctive assets of this Beethoven set for me are the quality and ambience of the live recordings, the superb sound and playing of the Wiener Philharmoniker, the compact and attractive presentation of the CDs, and above all Christian Thielemann's wholly convincing vision of the master's symphonies.