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4.0 out of 5 stars A personal comparison of various recordings of Beethoven's symphonies, 28 Oct 2009
This review is from: Beethoven: 9 Symphonies (Audio CD)
In this review I will try to compare various complete recordings of Beethoven's nine symphonies plus Carlos Kleiber's CD with Symphonies number 5 and 7 (on DG). Concerning Carlos Kleiber it is easily done: I will advice anybody who appreciates Beethoven (or who think they might appreciate Beethoven) to buy his CD. I doubt you can find better versions of those two works. When I mention Karajan in this review I refer only to his first complete set of Beethoven's symphonies for DG from 1963 with the Berliner Philharmoniker. The other complete sets I will write about are: Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra (Bis), Jos van Immerseel and Anima Eterna (Zig Zag), David Zinman and Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (Arte Nova), Herbert Blomstedt and Staatskapelle Dresden (Brilliant). All orchestras mentioned here perform on modern instruments except Immerseel's Anima Eterna.

I will go through the symphonies one by one and give short comments on the various recordings. I will start in reverse order since I guess most people will be interested in the late symphonies primarily.

Karajan plays a terrific and grand 9th ("Choral") - his wild gestures and colourful style fit the work well - he is a true romantic in the first romantic symphony in musical history. It is the only 9th I have heard in which all the movements really shine, for instance in Vanska's recording only the two last movements really work for me, but then again those two are amazing - you can hear every polyphonic detail in the choral finale. Immerseel gives us a good "slim" 9th (only 33 musicians in the orchestra which though is 9 more than in the other symphonies). Zinman's recording lacks verve and excitement in the two first movements, but his adagio is pretty and the finale is gripping. A special feature in Zinman's 9th is that he plays it with Beethoven's original general pause in bar 747. Blomstedt plays a vibrant 9th with a beautiful truly romantic adagio (16+ minutes long like Karajan's) and a glorious finale. Thomas Dausgaard with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra Örebro (on Simax as part of a complete recording of Beethoven's orchestral music which I am NOT reviewing here) is - as a whole - the best recent (2009) 9th I have heard, but text and translation of Schiller's ode are not included in the booklet. Some might say that the scherzo in Dausgaard's hands is too aggressive, but I find it fresh and spirited.

Zinman gives you a good 7th but not a great one. The winning set in the 7th is no doubt Immerseel's who's ravishing exhilarating account is full of verve and vigour. Richard Wagner described this symphony as "the apotheosis of dance" and he had/has a point: This is a symphony that demands a "mobile" orchestra - a dancing orchestra. And here Immerseel and Anima Eterna have the advantage of a smaller orchestra that can really dance. Vanska's version of the 7th really disappointed me. It is simply boring - he plays it too slowly. But if you buy Carlos Kleiber's 7th in addition to Vanska's complete cycle you will be doing just fine. What I have said about the 7th also could be said about the 8th - again Immerseel's interpretation is the more lively. But I don't think you will be disappointed in this symphony with either Karajan, Zinman, Vanska or Blomstedt. Karajan's 7th and 8th are highlights of his set.

Karajan's approach is much too heavy for the "Pastoral" (the 6th Symphony). Same thing can be said about Blomstedt's. Vanska's is the best version of this light-hearted symphony (a rare example of program music in Beethoven's oeuvre). Vanska's "Scene by the brook" (the title of the 2nd movement) has a beautiful, tranquil and romantic atmosphere that I find very appealing. I didn't like the "Pastoral" before I heard Vanska conduct it. "The merry gathering of the country folk" is as merry as it should be and "Thunder Storm" really sounds like thunder. Zinman isn't bad in this one either, the 1st movement in particular conveys the "Pleasant, cheerful feelings which awaken in people on arrival in the country" to the listener.

In the first movement of the famous 5th Immerseel plays very fast (maybe too fast) and takes no prisoners. It is a very extreme approach, but it does appeal to me somehow especially because the rest of the symphony seems to follow as a logic conclusion. Vanska plays it slower and gives you time to both try to feel and figure out what Beethoven intended with this work. Karajan might be overdoing it a little bit in the 5th, but it is certainly not boring. Zinman plays the fast movements almost as fast as Immerseel and presents a decent 5th, although I miss some grandeur when it should reach its climax in the 4th movement.

I am not very enthusiastic about Beethoven's 4th Symphony, but maybe I just haven't listened to it enough to get to know it better. The recording I will choose to get to know it better will probably be Vanska's.
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In the 3rd Symphony ("Eroica") Vanska slowly builds up tension creating a truly heroic feeling - definitely my favourite.

The 1st and 2nd Symphonies are not core repertoire Beethoven and I suppose most performers don't really care too much about them. At least when I listen to them they only really make sense and appeal to me in the hands of Osmo Vanska.

I almost forgot about Herbert Blomstedt. Maybe because his cycle is forgettable in the sense that it just repeats an approach similar to Karajan's.

When it comes to sound Anima Eterna's set is definitely the winner. Not only because it has the best recording technique, but also because the small orchestra enables you to hear every single instrument in the orchestra. With larger orchestras the sound becomes somewhat blurred and you can't tell which instruments are playing what. As I said the Karajan set discussed here was recorded in 1963. Blomstedt's is from the late `70s (the 9th from 1980), Zinman's is from the `90s, Immerseel's and Vanska's were both recorded in the beginning of the new millennium and are of course superior in terms of sound quality.

So my recommendation: Jos van Immerseel with Anima Eterna is the best overall set, but if you don't like the idea of period instruments and a small ensemble choose Osmo Vanska with the Minnesota Orchestra. In addition to that buy Carlos Kleiber's 5th and 7th and Karajan's or Dausgaard's 9th.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 10 Jun 2010 20:40:38 BDT
Assuming this is Karajan's 1963 set, comparing it to modern and period-induced performance is not appropriate. The Karajan '63 set is seen as a benchmark of the literalist movement that followed World War II and was about as different as possible from Furtwangler's more romantically-induced recordings. The period movement in Beethoven, started by Norrington's first set on EMI Beethoven: 9 Symphonies, was a great departure from Karajan's literalism. Three of the sets you cite for comparision -- Vanska, Immerseel and Zinman -- are all either period performance or period-induced performance. Some use different versions of the score than Karajan, too. I think it is fair to compare Karajan to Blomstedt's Brilliant set. They probably use the same scores, were recorded within a couple decades of each other, and essentially are performed in the same literalist style. Their respectives places in history are close to each other, as are the other three recordings. While Kleiber's Symphony 5 is very exciting (and also has been reintroduced in far improved super audio sound) his Symphony 7 does not hold similar sway. It is quite a bit acidic and nervous for many collectors. Colin Davis's recording from the 1970s (if you can find it) is a good 7 as is Ferenc Fricsay's more romantic version . There are scores of good 9s depending on what style you want to hear. I found Immerseel's to be more mainstream than I'd have expected from a period band. I would recommend anyone looking for an unfamiliar Symphony 9 to try out Richard Hickox's recoring on ASV Beethoven: Symphony No.9 that used an orchestra of Beethoven's time.

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Oct 2011 20:04:44 BDT
Mr Swallow says:
Can't see what you mean by 'literalist'. The period instrument movement is 'literalist' in trying to perform the symphonies the way they think Beethoven might have heard them. Interestingly Karajan's 1963 set somewhat anticipated this. When it first appeared people thought of it as too fast compared to (eg) Klemperer.
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