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5.0 out of 5 stars The DVD version of the excellent set also available on Blu-ray and reviewed below, 17 Mar. 2014
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This review is from: Beethoven: Complete Symphonies [Mariss Jansons, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra] [Arthaus: 107537] [DVD] [NTSC] [2013] (DVD)
This obviously fine set was recorded in the Suntory Hall, Tokyo in 2012. The recording was made by a team of Japanese technicians whose technical expertise has fully justified the enormous cost of transporting the orchestra from its homeland. The sheer quality of the visual imaging and the attendant sound quality, presented in DTS-HD 5.1 and stereo, are breathtakingly apparent from the very start and I would be tempted to suggest that this recording has set a new standard by which others will be judged in future. The camera work is of an equivalent standard.

So much for the technical aspects of the recording. This is music however, and there is a great deal more to consider beyond recording quality for this to be successful in such a demanding and competitive market:

The nine symphonies are presented as three on each of the three discs and are played in numerical order. There is an extensive bonus of some 44 minutes, to be found on disc 1, which gives a detailed coverage of the rehearsals spread over three days that led to the performance of the third symphony.

This review will deal with each disc in turn:
Disc 1 - Symphonies 1-3 and the rehearsal feature:

Jansons is clearly aware of recent research regarding likely performing practices of these nine symphonies. This informs his choices of overall tempi and phrasing but has minimal effect on his choice of orchestral size and none on his use of period instruments. Thus his performances of these three symphonies are fleet, as Beethoven intended, and also very steady as regards maintenance of tempi once established. This is important as it enables tension to be created and retained without artificial distortions which would take the performances out of period context. First movement repeats are observed which give proper balance.

The first symphony was Beethoven's symphonic calling card and is the nearest to the Haydn model. However, it is already far more demanding upon the concentration of both the players and audiences in terms of the dramatic content and range. This use of tension fro dramatic effect is very well brought out on this reading but instead of it coming over heavily, Jansons is able to create a clear sense of joy in his interpretation. The relationship with ideas of dance are never far from the surface and very apparent in the final two movements. The Adagio introductions to both the first and last movements are taken particularly briskly.

The second symphony travels further along this dramatic path with more insistent accenting of rhythmic features. The sense of dance is still maintained but the balance is shifted towards more dramatic effects. The orchestra used here is slightly enlarged with more strings, but not so many as to swamp the important woodwind dialogues. The opening movement's introductory adagio molto is taken swiftly with the emphasis thus being on the 'molto' rather than on the adagio. As in the first symphony, this brisk tempo adds to the anticipation as to what is to follow.

The third symphony brings about a considerable change in the scale of musical ideas and their application. I would suggest that it would be beneficial to watch the bonus rehearsal footage before watching the subsequent performance. Jansons is the sort of conductor who takes a very analytical approach to his work and much time is spent on detail, almost bar by bar and orchestral section by section. The Bavarian orchestra seems to respond very positively to this sort of microscopic detail over phrasing, articulation, balance and so on. these rehearsal took three days of the most intense rehearsal time and the results are clearly there to be heard in the subsequent performance.

The symphony, once more, is taken at fleet tempi with little fluctuation. The content of each movement conceived with variations of fundamental character. The first movement, of epic proportion, has a mood of excited anticipation punctuated with biting climaxes that still fall short of being overpowering. The second movement, still at a pace that constantly moves forward, brings a grief-filled tension - that of expectation crushed. This still falls short of being doom-laden as hope is not destroyed. These two movements relate to Beethoven's belief in and eventual disillusionment with Napoleon of course. The scherzo reminds us of the use of dance and the mood lightens and hope is reborn. The final movement, still on the move, is emotionally triumphant as Beethoven's Promethean theme is brought to the fore. Jansons uses a full orchestra for this reading.

This first disc is full of promise therefore and one approaches the next three symphonies in the expectation of more enlightenment and fulfilment.

Disc 2 - Symphonies 4 - 6

These three symphonies form a trio in the context of a review comment and in so far as the element of dancelike joy is now becoming a thing of the past with the increasing emphasis upon structure. These are all relatively heavier readings making use of a full modern orchestral complement. The tempi chosen for the three symphonies is far more in line with regular full modern orchestral speeds and may be partly determined by what is possible with such a large group of players although it is a delight to be able to enjoy so much unforced piccolo highlighting in the final moments of the fifth symphony.

The fourth and fifth symphonies are both tightly played within that more structural concept and these can be safely described as strong and forthright readings extremely well executed. First movement exposition repeats are observed in both symphonies as is the last movement exposition repeat in the fifth symphony. Jansons keeps his tempi consistent throughout and the impact of a full modern orchestra is undeniably impressive. However these readings are a far cry from the altogether more vibrant and almost improvisatory brilliance of the Jurowski performance of the fourth symphony with the exceptionally lithe, extremely dramatic and almost improvisatory brilliance of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Different planets of musical experience between these two therefore.

The sixth symphony is likewise quite a solidly built concept and it would be possible to imagine more sense of joy being created in both outer movements as suggested by their relative sub-titles and also the 'happy gathering of country folk' prior to the thunderstorm which seems more driven than happy. This is partly a matter of tempo and emphasis but also an inevitable consequence of having so many strings whose very lower opulence works against lighter feelings. The storm section itself, almost needless to say, is effective for all the reasons that work against the lighter elements as just mentioned.

Nevertheless these three readings remain eminently satisfying within their chosen full modern orchestra setting. The playing remains outstanding and responsive to all the demands made upon it and those demands remain consistent and convincing. There are none of the non-Classical period distortions that are so questionable in the Thielemann readings with the VPO for example.

The short encore at the end of the fifth symphony, an arrangement for the strings of the serenade movement from Haydn's op 3 /5 quartet, is exquisitely played and a clear example of the distance travelled by Beethoven in his creative journey by this stage. A fine and telling choice of encore to be relished.

Disc 3 - Symphonies 7 - 9

This disc starts off with a very fine delivery of the seventh symphony. Once more this is with full modern orchestra. Structurally the exposition repeats in the last two movements are observed. The tempi of the first two movements are fairly regular and the final bars of the first movement, held at a steady tempo, make for an exciting conclusion with the lower strings providing the required growling bass over which the crescendo builds leading to the concluding high horn figures played powerfully enough to ride above the massed strings.

The same sequence of events is equally successful at the end of the last movement which is kept at a good pace with tight control over the repeated rhythmic string figurations. The orchestral strings do really well throughout the movement as this repeated figure is hard to keep tight as it must be if it is to avoid losing the tension that is intended to develop. The same observations also apply to the first movement but to a lesser degree.

The third movement is also notable for a return to the joyful element which had been most noticeable in the first two symphonies. Jansons slows quite a bit for the trio sections of this movement, something that the period instrument bands would probably moderate. Jurowski is the example once more in his flat out and thrilling performance coupled with the fourth symphony and the Coriolan overture.

This symphony, not surprisingly, gets one of the most spontaneous bursts of audience applause at the end. Very successful in the context of a full modern orchestra and far superior to the mannered Thielemann performance.

The eighth symphony used to be called the 'little' symphony at one time and is unusual by not having a slow movement. It falls between the more dramatic and larger scaled seventh and ninth symphonies and could almost be described as a sort of musical interlude within the overall canon. Jansons reduces the size of the orchestra accordingly and this immediately helps to lighten the overall effect. He adopts a conventional pace for the first movement, a lively pace for the scherzo, and steady pace for the minuet and concludes with a return to a conventional pace for the final movement.

The faster pace in the scherzo particularly reintroduces a lighter touch, almost a sprightly feel and a touch of suggested Beethovian humour. The outer movements, by virtue of the opulent quality of the notably excellent string sections, give more of a trenchant feel to the readings and the last movement ends the symphony powerfully rather than light-heartedly.

This reading of the eighth symphony encompasses an interesting range of emotional feelings. It continues to benefit from steadily maintained tempi without any distortions of pace or phrasing and this is another satisfying reading.

The ninth symphony offers an incisively dramatic reading, particularly of the outer movements. Careful attention to the numerous dynamic markings, phrasing and other details underpins a particularly strong performance and these can be no doubt of the advantages of mustering the full orchestral and choral forces at Janson's disposal to deliver such a reading. The solo quartet is also extremely well matched and the playing of all members of the orchestra is beyond reproach. Once more the general pacing is conventional within the normal range of modern full orchestral performances and it is the scrupulous attention to detail, always made clear, and tight rhythmical control that marks this performance out as being especially noteworthy.

Overall this is arguably the finest set now available in terms of full modern orchestral versions. This is a powerful set and one that makes the most of the structural drama of the symphonies. The playing of the orchestra is second to none and the recording quality is so good as to set a new benchmark of excellence. The bonus feature of the rehearsal sequences is especially illuminating and the sleeve notes are fulsomely informative.
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I. Giles
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (TOP 50 REVIEWER)   

Location: Argyll, Scotland

Top Reviewer Ranking: 15