This Beethoven cycle, featuring Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden, is a very solid cycle 1 - 9. However, I think anyone calling this cycle the best probably hasn't fully investigated the overwhelming catalog of Beethoven cycles. Blomstedt's readings are very much in the traditional mold, with the main focus being on clarity, balance, mostly correct tempo choices and rhythmic steadiness. Blomstedt, however, doesn't display much of his own personality. And while as a result this would make a nice choice for a reference, I can't think of one performance in this set that I'd call a truly top-tier performance. Probably the one symphony that comes the closest in this set would be the 6th, which gets a sublime rendering. That being said, Blomstedt is consistently good across the entire cycle, offering rock-solid if unspectacular versions of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 7th, and 8th. The only true misfires in the set for me were the 5th and 9th. The 5th is hurt by a rather underpowered, slow opening, and it's something Blomstedt never really fully overcomes. The 9th is hurt by very moderate tempi in the 1st movement and a less than stellar cast of soloists in the finale. Criticism aside, this is one of the most consistent sets around.
Another positive aspect of these performances, in fact maybe the biggest draw, is the chance to hear the storied Dresdeners weave their magic. In that regard, they do not disappoint, featuring fine ensemble playing, a deep rich string tone, strong winds, and a characteristic burnished brass sound. They can obviously play this music in their sleep, and without much help. And it's a good thing too, because Blomstedt certainly doesn't bother to get in the way. I wish Blomstedt offered a bit more direction.
Sound is very good, a nicely defined late 1970s/early 1980s analog. All parts are easily heard, and voices are perfectly balanced. I never struggle to hear anything. As far as liner notes go, well, I didn't get any with my copy.
Overall, while hardly an earth-shattering cycle, this is a worthy option for those looking for a first-time set, but this is really just another box set taking up the shelf space of the afficionado - you won't find much new in this set. Blomstedt in many ways reminds me of Gunter Wand with his lack of a personal interpretive approach. While this makes for a good reference recording, I can think of multiple recordings for each symphony that I'd prefer over anything in this box set, and several cycles which I'd recommend before this one. I'd look at the 1963 Karajan/BPO cycle on DGG, the Jochum/Concertgebouw set on Philips, the Szell/CO cycle on Sony, the Schmidt-Isserstedt/VPO cycle on Decca, and the Cluytens/BPO cycle on EMI. In regards to individual performances of each symphony, I'd recommend investigating:
1 & 2: Kubelik (DG); Bohm/VPO (DG); Szell/CO (Sony)
3: Schmidt-Isserstedt/VPO (Decca); Bohm/VPO (DG); Szell/CO (Sony); Karajan/BPO (DG); Ansermet/OSR (Decca); Bernstein/NYPO (Sony); Cluytens/BPO (EMI); Klemperer/PO (EMI)
4: Karajan/BPO (DG); Konwitschny/Gewandhaus (Brilliant); Kempe/Munich PO (Royal Classics); Cluytens/BPO (EMI)
5: Kleiber/VPO (DG); Monteux/LSO (Decca); Ansermet/OSR (Decca); Giulini/LAPO (DG); Cluytens/BPO (EMI)
6: Bohm/VPO (DG); Kempe/Munich PO (Royal Classics); Schmidt-Isserstedt/VPO (Decca); Walter/CBSO (Sony); Cluytens/BPO (EMI)
7: Konwitschny/Gewandhaus (Brilliant); Kleiber/VPO (DG); Bernstein/NYPO (Sony); Jochum/RCO (Philips); Bohm/VPO (DG); Monteux/LSO (Decca)
8: Karajan/BPO (DG); Bohm/VPO (DG); Szell/CO (Sony); Cluytens/BPO (EMI)
9: Karajan/BPO (DG); Schmidt-Isserstedt/VPO (Decca); Ansermet/OSR (Decca); Fricsay/BPO (DG); Szell/CO (Sony); Giulini/LSO (EMI); Jochum/LSO (EMI); Klemperer/PO (EMI)
In sum: with this low pricetag, the newcomer to Beethoven shouldn't hesitate. If you've already acquired multiple symphony sets, you'd best preview the tracks first, as depending on what you already own, this set may be redundant and/or superfluous.