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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars

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on 21 April 2017
An authentic version of the Beethoven symphonies. So very good!
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VINE VOICEon 13 March 2010
I've been a starry-eyed admirer of the more polished, better-characterised HIP versions of Beethoven symphonies for many years. I know that many listeners will continue to vilify these versions till the end of time, but I will still be a keen supporter of this paradigm shift approach.

Yet I am aware that these recordings will remain contentious territory. I know that historically informed anything means hurry-sick performances and hurry-up tempo choices dictated by the rush-hour culture of today's world. I know also that there is mounting concrete evidence to suggest that the first musicians who performed Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and other composers adopted slower speeds out of necessity because of ragged ensemble standards and poor internal instrumental mechanics. As such, the stratospheric speeds of many performances today might put everybody - performers and listeners alike - on the fast lane to burnout and ruin. If our forbears were alive today, I'm half expecting them to scold today's musicians for their trivial, ignoble and vacant renditions that are lacking in musical substance.

However, I wearied of the stodgy performances of Beethoven symphonies done by many conductors of the past. So I was grateful for conductors who attempted to adhere to Beethoven's stipulated speeds. His prescribed speeds work if you consider that he wants us to feel his music in larger beat units.

Of the four pioneering historically-sensitive versions (Goodman/Huggett, Norrington/LCP, Hogwood being the others) I find that Gardiner is perhaps the most robust. The performances are more full-bodied than the others that had been released up to that point. Though the ORR was a young orchestra at the time they recorded this cycle (compared to Hogwood's AAM), their punches and salvos are still strong in their clean, forthright renditions of the symphonies. I know that the European period-instrument recordings are more nuanced and focused on the beauty and blend of the sound, but Gardiner and the ORR are bracing and incisive where needed, and strong on characterisation too. They tend to better project the music out from the recording space. One thing that helps this cycle is that they were late to the party, and they were able to smooth out the rough edges of the prior cycles. They also adopted new findings such as the double-quick speed for the Turkish March variation in the finale of the Choral. These may be debatable points, but I embraced the point about the Turkish March tempo because of its family likeness to the March variation in the Choral Fantasy.

Gardiner's Beethoven cycle does a marvellous job at capturing the Sturm und Drang aspect of the symphonies. Though some people are in principle against the fast speeds of the historically sensitive presentations, Gardiner makes them work and work convincingly. The light-footed symphonies come off well and Gardiner wisely holds back so that they don't sound too much like the heavier middle-period symphonies. It is to his credit that sometimes his speeds are sometimes slower than the metronome speed, as in the slow movements of the Second and Fourth. These slow movements spin themselves out nicely and at a flowing, just speed.

Any Beethoven cycle stands or falls on the quality of the great middle-period symphonies, and here Gardiner and his team succeed magnificently despite the many memorable readings we have had of these works in the past. The Eroica and the Firth are highlights in the cycle, and show Gardiner and his orchestra in their element. There is torque in the outer movements of the Eroica and a steady, nicely sculpted Funeral March. It might also help to remember that the Fifth is at heart a violent, brutal and headbanging symphony (in its minor-key sections), and so I am grateful that Gardiner acknowledges this in his performance. Gardiner also turns in some energetic and rhythmic performances of the Seventh and Eighth symphonies, and a nicely shaped rendition of the Pastoral. I am aware that the slower versions of Böhm and Walter are more appropriate for this symphony because this work requires the conductor to think in terms of the "long now". Yet the Gardiner Pastoral, on the same CD as the Fifth, still sounds as fresh as spring. It doesn't sound rushed and I love the fact that it still feels "con spirito" even at these speeds. The climaxes build up naturally without being pushed, pressed or rushed. Also, Gardiner takes comparatively more time than his other historically-sensitive buddies. Norrington and Hogwood undercut him in the first movement (and, for that matter, Karajan.) The Brook flows peacefully and I don't feel any hint of Gardiner forcing the waters forward. He comes into his own when the storm crashes in, and holds back for a steady paced Shepherd's Thanksgiving.

As the Ninth is the longest symphony it will have a paragraph all to itself. The Ninth symphony may be a bit of a surprise to those who have known and loved the way that Wagner and his followers interpreted the work. They may think it's perverse, but it's a musical performance that works and approximates what we know so far of Beethoven's intentions for the work. There is a real Sturm und Drang quality to the first movement, pushing itself forward unlike in other performances where it plods along. There is more violence and brutality in this conception and the dotted rhythms are well-articulated while the music generates its own momentum. To those who complain that Gardiner is outpacing all other recorded performances in each and every movement, It is to his credit that he adopts a fast, but just, speed for the Trio in the Scherzo. I know that people will hate the way the historically sensitive Ninths have done the slow movement. To the detractors of this approach, it would be helpful to remember the family resemblance to the slow movement of the Pathetique and also the metrical superstructure of the movement. Here in a common-time movement the minims are the slow notes and so they need to set the pulse, not the crotchets or quavers (as per the older conceptions of the Ninth in the past). Moreover the music can feel slow if the common-time bar is beaten in two, not four. I know that people will brand these Ninths as rush-hour Ninths but the music works at Beethoven's marked speed and allows the 12/8 variation to be really flighty. As a concession to those who are non-fans of the historically sensitive style, I notice that Gardiner's tempo is slightly slower than the metronome mark. Also, Norrington, Hogwood and Zinman streak past Gardiner in this movement. The Finale snaps and crackles with energy and has a superb team of soloists singing together with the superb Monteverdi Choir.

I'm very glad that DG has re-released this set as a budget-priced box. As such the budget-conscious collector now more choice when looking for superb performances of these works. The only downside to this release is that it would have been nice to combine the Gardiner Beethoven symphonies set and also the Gardiner/Levin cycle of piano concertos in one slam-dunk clam package for a marvellous bargain. But as it is it's great to have this cycle available and to seize the bargain of this re-release.

Though Gardiner and the ORR have since released re-takes of some of the symphonies (four at this edit of January 2016), these earlier recordings still hold up well. I feel there is a bit more "fire in the belly" and the characterisation is still sharp.

My readers will know that I love this Beethoven cycle tremendously. I know that the performance of these symphonies is a matter with no definite answers. But then, it is the mark of all composers if their music stood up to all manner of interpretation through time. Karajan, Weingartner and the other conductors of past generations have chipped in with their perspectives, just as today's conductors have done.Though people may vilify historically-informed Beethoven till the end of time, this set will still be a stimulating, provocative and durable Beethoven cycle and holds up well two decades after Gardiner and his ORR first recorded it.
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on 30 August 2010
One of the criticisms always levelled at Original Instruments recordings is that they are the work of pedants, who care more for reproducing an 'authentic' sound than producing a great recording - but I dare any naysayer to call Gardiner's Beethoven cycle pedantic! For those used to the luscious strings and slower tempi of Klemperer or Abbado, this set can seem brutal; but therein lies its brilliance. Here is a Beethoven never content to wallow; the gut strings *are* gutsy, and shimmer with an organic beauty, and the woodwind and brass fizz and sparkle. This is raw, blood-red Beethoven, with a freshness you won't hear elsewhere on disc. At under £2 a symphony? Snap it up.
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on 10 August 2013
As a fan of the old-school 1963 Karajan recordings of Beethoven's 9 Symphonies, it is quite something to say that I love these recordings by Gardiner and the ORR, which provide a new and refreshing take on these familiar works. The recordings and performances are clear and crisp, and are meant to by presented in the way that Beethoven himself might have performed them in his day, and using period instruments. One major feature that is immediately apparent is the greatly increased tempo, which if you are used to the more popular mainstream recordings (particularly Karajan) may be off-putting at first.
This recording has allowed me to enjoy some of the symphonies that have never done anything for me previously, most importantly the 7th and 8th, two masterpieces that somehow alluded me for some years at the hands of Karajan. While on the other side the increased tempo and thinned-down, cleaner texture at first didn't sound quite right when applied to the 5th - although I now absolutely love this interpretation and listen to it more often than any other recording.

This is Beethoven made clean, fast and fun.
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on 23 December 2015
I bought this box set firstly because all the repeats are observed, including the Seventh, which suffers greatly from a lack of observance of repeats in many performances and also because I was interested to hear Beethoven's symphonies played on period instruments. It was also interesting to hear the symphonies played at a faster metronome speed and at the speed at which Beethoven originally intended them to be performed. The box set certainly didn't disappoint, although I think in buying future cycles, I'd go for a more full-blown orchestra. Every symphony was well played, although in the latter ones it sounded as though I was listening to a more baroque style than otherwise. When listening to classical music, however, you'll never get a perfect performance because each conductor handles the works played in his or her own way. I have a couple more in the pipeline and that's the CD copy of the Daniel Barenboim cycle and the Sir Simon Rattle performance.
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on 31 December 2016
Gardiner's performance in this album is just like Formula 1; and he sees the listeners as the spectators of this race in his head. The formulation for Beethoven's music he contemplated in his mind has turned into Formula 1 in its concrete form. In my opinion Gardiner is the ultimate champion of this race, so nobody can exceeds his speed. Exceeding the limit of speed means coming in the other side of the sound which is empty itself and makes listeners dull, in lack of responsiveness and insensitive. Especially, the performance makes me upset most in the first movement of the 9th symphony. All the drama intentionally expressed by the great Composer in this movement left suffocated and remained only corpse from itself in the hands of this performance.
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on 15 October 2015
Only got into classical music recently. The standard cliche that Beethoven's odd numbered symphonies are his best appears to be true - I love 3, 5, 7 and 9. Haven't really been pulled in by 1,2,4,6 and 8 but there is time.

The 9th Symphony is amazing - a musical exploration of personal struggle and ultimate release. Genius. I found I had to listen to it a number of times before it sunk in. This is music that challenges the attention and patience of the listener and ultimately rewards.

Nice price and nice un-fussy packaging.

I'm aware of the debate about how these recordings / interpretations compare with others but as a newbie they suit me fine. Recommended.
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on 6 August 2016
A very 'different' slant on Beethovens works taken from original scores and played on period instruments. Many pieces, particularly his 5th, are played considerably faster than the norm making at almost sound as though you are listening to a new piece of music. Dispatched promptly with descriptive notes.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 19 August 2011
Having von Karajan and Bernstein (CDs and DVDs), I bought this collection because it is traditional instruments and an attempt to replicate music as his audiences heard it. Although we will never really know, watching the marvellous DVD "Eroica" (which I recommend), I began to wonder how different the music would sound.
In concert and on CDs, I have obviously heard, grown used to (and been spoiled by?) the large modern orchestras with their high quality instruments capable of wider ranges of sound produced differently, e.g. trumpets and horns. I know some music-lovers find an interest in original sound quality, performances and instruments a little eccentric and bizarre and, in many ways, it is, e.g. Beethoven would have loved to have performed on a Steinway grand and would not have hesitated as it would have avoided that collection of broken instruments and strings flying dangerously free.
For the modern listener, these performances may/will sound strange and unfamiliar but, nevertheless, as an addition to the collection with such passionate, sincere musicians, it is worth listening to.
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on 19 August 2012
In 2008 I posted a review of this set, then at full price, with the same heading as this review bears. Not surprisingly, I agree with the favourable comments on this budget re-release, and will only reproduce the final paragraph of my earlier review:

"If you cannot stomach period performance and are wedded to the lush, romantic view of these symphonies, such as that espoused by the likes of Karajan or Klemperer, then these performances are not for you. Similarly, if you want something which shrieks "Authentic" and "Period" at you all of the time, even at the expense of the music itself, then again you will not like these discs. But for everyone else this collection can be recommended unreservedly."
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