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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Most intense Beethoven since Toscanini, 22 Jan 2004
Christopher Langdon (Cheltenham, Glos' United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Beethoven: Complete Symphonies (Audio CD)
Harnoncourt's Beethoven caused something of a sensation when it first appeared in 1991. Until then new Beethoven cycles were either in the German nineteenth century tradition or the hair-shirt approach of the 'authentic' brigade. To say that Harnoncourt was neither should not imply blandness, for Harnoncourt gives the most intense performances recorded since Toscanini.
Indeed these recordings often achieve what would be my ideal; a Toscanini performance with modern recording techniques. Harnoncourt uses a much smaller band and the superb Chamber Orchestra of Europe do whatever he asks of them. Sometimes one wishes that they had trouble responding to his more extreme tempi, but more of that later.
Numbers 1, 2, 4 and 8 are all superb, neither overblown nor treated like Mozartian throwbacks but full of passion combined with beauty of sound. The slow movements of the second and fourth are ravishing and their finales tinglingly virtuosic. The fifth is I think the finest on record, with a true Beethovenian visceral quality, far better for me than the chromium plated excitement of the usual top recommendation Kleiber. The seventh is even better with a finale that matches Toscanini for intensity, but with infinitely better recording.
This leaves three performances flawed to some degree. The first movement of the Eroica is surely way to fast. Harnoncourt makes Toscanini sound like Klemperer. A great shame as the rest of the symphony is superb. In the Pastoral the problem is the other way. Not so much "awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the country" as "falling asleep on arriving in the country" and here Harnoncourt does not redeem himself in the other movements. The Choral is something of a tragedy as he is quite magnificent in three movements, but the vital slow movement is again taken at a furious pace. This is not just a question of speed, as Toscanini is almost as quick but produces ravishing sounds and controls the underlying pulse superbly. Harnoncourt just seems to lose the thread here and the blazing finale can't really compensate.
So there are some miscalculations, but there were bound to be in something so original and intense. If you want safe Beethoven there are (too) many alternatives, but Beethoven was never meant to be safe, so buy this and get some idea of the affect Beethoven must have had on a world that had heard only Haydn and Mozart.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Harnoncourt rethinks Beethoven, 8 Jan 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: Beethoven: Complete Symphonies (Audio CD)
A perceptive 20th century theologian described preaching as 'logic on fire', the phrase sums-up Harnoncourt's way with Beethoven! Listening to these performances the word 'incandescent' forces itself into the mind. This is fiery, explosive and intense Beethoven. Such intense energy came as a surprise given the antipathy Harnoncourt is said, in the accompanying booklet, to feel towards the so-called agitative qualities of this music. Harnoncourt is reported to have been determined to avoid 'the mindless heroism typical of so many other interpreters'. Whatever can be said for and against these readings, 'mindless' they are not!
The impression is that Harnoncourt has rethought every phrase, dynamic, timbre, and tempo. That might produce unconvincing results; self-consciously, wilfully 'different'. To be sure, these are entirely individual-even iconoclastic-performances. But so often the solutions seem/sound 'right'-so often one finds oneself thinking, 'That's exactly how I have wanted to hear that played!' These are overwhelming performances-and more often than not overwhelmingly convincing-of these inexhaustible supreme masterpieces.
Perhaps most starting is Harnoncourt's Eroica. The pace of the first movement is like lightening scintillating across water. The climax is driven relentlessly, generating massive energy. Certainly 'heroic'! Then, with no time to catch breath, the murmurs of the Funeral March, heavy with sorrow, seemingly darker than usual after such dazzling bright 'success', tell that all is over-dark-night sweeps away the mightiest.
The 7th is also outstandingly effective-far more here than the deification of dance. This tells of the ultimate triumph of transcendental hope, life and joy-intoxicatingly effective in the ultimate peroration! (How exquisitely exciting are these COE horns!)
With Harnoncourt only the Pastoral seems, to this listener, an enigma. The first movement seems oddly reluctant-devoid of a vocabulary for the unbuttoned joy we know Beethoven expresses.
None of Harnoncourt's vision could be communicated without the jaw-dropping virtuosity of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe-the perfect complement to the conductor's intentions and spirit (the recording is so good that it goes unnoticed).
If beauty is to be found on the edge of safety (a dictum of Harnoncourt's, we're told) it feels that this combination of orchestra and conductor could not have come closer!
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The test of time, 3 Oct 2009
enthusiast "enthusiast" (sussex, uk) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Beethoven: Complete Symphonies (Audio CD)
This set came out to pretty good reviews more that fifteen years ago (could it be 20 years?). It was seen as something of a revolution in its day. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe play wonderfully and Harnoncourt's choice to record these symphonies with a modern orchestra but using some period brass gives the performances a head start in creating a distinctive Beethoven sound. The idea of period style Beethoven was relatively new back then and Harnoncourt's set was one that seemed to usher in a revolution in Beethoven playing. Since then I think it's reputation has only risen - while other, perhaps even more radical, sets have come to seem flawed or less good now that they no longer shock - Harnoncourt's set has passed the test of time with flying colours and is fast achieving the status of true classic. I can no longer hear what it was that shocked (and many who have followed have gone for far more shock) - I just hear wonderfully well played and recorded, very satisfying, musical and uplifting Beethoven.

So ... revolutionary, stimulating ... but also deeply satisfying and loveable! There is lots of charm here and joy - it well nigh impossible not to sing or whistle along - and the drama is neither over nor under played. All the symphonies receive satisfying performances that I still regularly return to for the sheer pleasure of hearing "Beethoven as he should be played" (that's how I have come to think of these accounts). For me the stand out performances are symphonies 1-3, 6 (a truly wonderful Pastoral!), 8 and 9.
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Beethoven: Complete Symphonies
Beethoven: Complete Symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven (Audio CD - 1991)
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