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3.8 out of 5 stars
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on 23 March 2003
The answer is in the affirmative, though with some minor reservations. No one interpreter has everything to say about this marvellous music, but I came to this set curious to hear what probably the greatest living conductor has to say about the greatest orchestral oeuvre, bar none. On reflection, the Abbado complete set (also with the VPO) treats each symphony as a single entity, but Rattle sees each symphony as a step on a journey, ending with the sublime 9th, which, he says, "comes from another planet". An interesting approach, though one I am not sure works; it is unlikely anyone will actually listen to all the symphonies together in one sitting, thus do individually-heard symphonies suffer as a result? Certainly some of the interpretations are more successful than others: the 6th is probably the most successful, it being seen by Rattle as one of Beethoven's most spiritual works, it certainly comes up to scratch compared with my old Bohm/VPO account, and the sound is that much better. The final pages of the 9th seem underhwelming to me, not as exciting and hair-raising as some. On the whole, tempi are faster than most (except the 1st and 3rd movements of the 9th, which are played much slower, making the symphony as a whole a little lop-sided), reflecting Norrington's influence on Rattle's performing style, and his interest in the whole 'period performance' aesthetic.
So, all in all a mixed bag. The sound itself (considering the sources to be live performances) is immediate and thrilling. Certainly most of the performances here will not be supplanting my older, treasured interpretations, but it is still a set to cherish, though one can't help thinking that Rattle, being still a relatively young man, has still much more to say in the future about this great great music.
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on 18 May 2003
A superheated set of performances. Rattle made it clear that his aim was to shock. Explaining his approach (always an iffy thing for a conductor to attempt) Sir Simon made much about Beethoven's shockingness - stories of Beethoven shouting Boo! to unsuspecting folk and vivid metaphors of buses and the edges of cliffs! To be sure Beethoven shocked (some of) his contemporaries. That is one thing, to attempt to shock us in the same way now is another thing altogether. But somehow Rattle achieves his aim. For this Beethoven is unlike any Beethoven we might meet in other sets of the symphonies. This is Beethoven overdosed on 'The Rite of Spring'.

At its heart this volcanic set has tremendous performances of the 5th and 6th. They are of powerfully sustained intensity, the effect is splendidly impressive and satisfying. The Pastoral especially has immense power and eloquence - more a meteor storm than a few drops of rain!

Other performances are (much) more problematic. One problem is the sound that Rattle has persuaded the magnificent VPO to produce, utterly unlike the orchestra's traditional sound - this glares with a metallic hardness. For comparison while Harnoncourt's Chamber Orchestra of Europe seems lit by a Vermeer light, Rattle's VPO is lit by halogen. And Rattle's approach so often (unsurprisingly) matches the sound he has created, frequently there are passages of brash relentless, sometimes of brutal aggressiveness (with clearly audible gruntings to match!). Climaxes are often belligerent, an attacking pack of snarling Dobermen. Conclusions bring relief but rarely exaltation - the exception is the conclusion of the 7th. But the finale of the 9th is unremitting and hectoring - 'You will be joyful!' But there is little sense of real elation.

Another persistent problem is that movements often fail to cohere. Rattle's notorious pernicketiness doesn't help. The first movement of the 9th progresses through a clutter of fluctuating, fussy tempo changes. The effect is that certain movements come across with little sense of cogent integrated completeness. The impression is like a display of interesting artefacts - a conducted tour of a 'Beethoven room' in the British Museum. Despite this the results can be powerful and impressive. For example the Eroica's Funeral March and the Adagio of the 9th, both powerfully expressive.

It is reported that reviewing the project Rattle remarked, 'I think we reached a point none of us had visited before'! He wasn't wrong! Judging by a multitude of comparative sets, no one has been here before! This is an utterly individual approach. And it is a shock! Which is why we are grateful to Rattle, the VPO and EMI. A 'must hear' set of hyper-intense (if frustrating) performances, very impressively packaged and presented.
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on 25 April 2003
This new set has been long and highly awaited. When news came through Gramophone that a new cycle was being recorded, I was filled with excitement. Furtwangler, Karajan (1963 and 1977), Klemperer and Toscanini to name the justly great cycles of Beethoven came back to mind. Being recorded live, it is bound to be a set filled with high charge energy. The above would have been recorded in the old school of performance whereas it was expected that Rattle would try out a combination of the VPO's rich and lustrous tone and tradition with new performance practice, not to mention the new text edition by Jonathan del Mar. And in this he does. In certain parts of the symphonies, you will hear the rich tones associated with the VPO but in certain areas, you will be surprised! Abbado's new DG set and DVD cycle uses the new del Mar edition as well.
With Sir Simon Rattle, one would expect an energetic and interpretations full of delight and surprises. Which is exactly what one would get listening to the first 2 symphonies. Full of verve and wit and swift tempos, they are a sheer delight. Being a live recording the audience was clearly there with them - no intrusions from the audience throughout.
The 1st movement of the Eroica comes through with energy and power. Klemperer and Giulini come to mind in this and although the speeds are distinctly different, the merits in these recordings are clear. What I missed in this Eroica was the intensity which the Gramophone reviewer Richard Osborne mentioned in his review of one of the actual concerts. If I had not known of that performance, I would be inclined to think that this was a good Eroica performance and as such, it should be.
The 4th symphony is swift in tempos and freshly projected but lacking in the rich sound and articulation in Karajan's 1963 set and Abbado's recent DG set.
The ideas and interpretation in the 5th Symphony in this new set sounds more connected than the earlier release (also under EMI). In that earlier release which was coupled with a Brahms Violin Concerto with Kyung Wha Chung, the mix of old and new was too much and too many. It was clear that one would not be getting a reading with the momentum to carry you through.
The Pastoral in this new set is a wonder. The Awakening of cheerful
feelings on arriving in the country and Scene by the Brook is as delightful as it can get. It was sheer delight and the build up to the Storm section was superbly done culminating with a real feeling of peace and serenity in the finale. The cellos are wonderfully nursed in the finale and being Giulini's assistant back in the Los Angeles Philhamonic, I would have expected no less. Listen to Giulini's wonder Pastoral issued in 1994 with the La Scala Philharmonic under Sony Classical. I would have loved to be in the audience at the Vienna performance.
The 7th symphony is only occasionally satisfying. The antiphonal lay out of the violins do pay dividends in the 1st movement but somehow I found it lacking in power (listen to Carlos Kleiber's VPO recording(DG Originals) or Karajan in 1963(DG), Toscanini's with the New York issued by Naxos and Sir Colin Davis (EMI)). The 2nd movement is not as moving and memorable as it should but this does not take away the force and momentum in the Allegro con brio finale.
Somehow I feel that the 2nd movement in all the symphonies except for the 9th could have been done a bit better. Listen to the concerto cycle with Brendel(Philips) and you will see what I mean. In that set, Rattle had Brendel who played brilliantly in the slow movements. However this does not in anyway undermine the performances in this new set which I am listening to for the umpteenth time.
The 8th symphony comes across with thrilling projection and excitement. Only in the Allegretto Scherzando did I find the reading subdued but no problems with the Allegro Vivace.
The 9th symphony is packed with drama and tension and the first 2 movements was wonderfully played. But certain parts of the symphony I missed some details which are clearly audible in the slow movements - listen to Abbado's wonderful BPO performance (recently issued by TDK DVD) at the 10th European Concert and issued as part of Abbado's DVD Beethoven cycle. The finale is memorable for a fine performance not only from the soloists but also from the City of Birmingham chorus under Simon Halsey.
It is clear that this is a set to keep worthy for the Pastoral, Eroica, Choral and the first 2 symphonies. I await eagerly when Rattle would get a chance to record with his new orchestra and when his ideas and style would be grafted into the playing of the BPO in the years to come. Rattle does indeed take you on a journey of discovery and along the way, surprises, delight, excitement and disappointment comes to mind and for the price, it is a journey worth undertaking every few years once! Bon voyage!
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on 25 March 2003
Since my experience with Rattle in the past has been average, I was amazed at how good this set is, despite a few inconsistencies that form the main weakness of the set.
Symphonies 1 and 2 are very lively, with fast tempi. The outer movements are very dramatic with audible timpani in the scherzo and finale of both works – something important in these earlier symphonies. What distinguishes Rattle’s interpretations over Mackerras’s and Zinman’s is, first, the sound which has a fuller string tone and, second, the way he handles the slow movements.
The Eroica is among the most successful performances in the set. Again, it is very similar to Mackerras’s performance. Rattle takes the first movement very fast, however the Vienna Philharmonic’s playing guarantees that fast pace doesn’t necessarily mean lack of grandeur (as is the case with Zinman). This performance of the Eroica has all the weight and drama one could wish for. The Funeral March is very dramatic, also taken at a swift tempo, while the scherzo is played with great force. As for the finale, it might surprise some listeners for Rattle’s strange choice of tempo (a bit on the slow side). Ratttle seems to pay too much attention to every single detail, trying hard for everything to be heard. This is not necessarily a problem though, and personally I’ve found the whole performance of the 3rd symphony highly successful.
The 4th symphony receives a fine performance. I certainly enjoyed how Rattle opens the first movement, slowly, full of suspense and anticipation. This performance really gains from Rattle’s placement of the violins antiphonically. The second movement is highly lyrical. Amazing string playing from the VPO. Rattle sticks to Beethoven’s metronome marks and the performance of the final movement is really fast.
The 5th symphony is very lean. Personally, I like the 5th to be more powerful, something along the lines of Karajan’s 60s performance or Wand. Still, the first movement is taken at a swift tempo and is very dramatic. It is also worth mentioning that the finale of the 5th, especially the last bars, are played impressively.
You will either love or hate Rattle’s performance of the 6th. The first movement receives a very poetic performance, with ideal choice of tempi, not too slow but neither too fast. Again, a lot of clarity from the VPO. Rattle plays the second movement with the strings muted throughout following Jonathan Del Mar’s edition of the score. And wait until you hear the bird song at the end: this is masterful playing indeed, very clear and careful wind playing. The storm has a lot of detail (listen to the eloquent string playing) but the timpani are not as aloud as in, say, the Mackerras recording. As for the finale, this matches Rattle’s view of this symphony as a spiritual statement: a sensitive touching transition and luminous wind playing introduce the finale. I have to say this could be the most touching finale of the pastoral I’ve heard.
I’ve found the performance of the 7th fine, but as with that of the 5th, there’s nothing that distinguishes it from other performances of the same symphony. I liked the way Rattle builds the tension in the beginning of the 1st movement and then slows down again. However, I find the brass playing in other recordings (notably those of Barenboim and Blomstedt) more consistent and commanding. The slow movement is taken at a swift tempo but Rattle manages to underlie its lyrical and dramatic theme, with the VPO’s divided violins. Overall I find the 7th to be a fine performance only lacking in detail and power, especially in the outer movements.
The 8th receives in my opinion an average account. There is really nothing memorable about this performance. Yes, the opening movement may be very expressive but the handling of the dynamics is a bit weird: Rattle seems to avoid letting the melody of the first movement blossom, handling it with caution. I also think the emphasis on detail is a bit unstable. The same can be said about the remaining movements.
And finally the 9th. Rattle says he views the 9th as a separate work from the remaining symphonies. And this is verified in this performance: it is epic, transcendental, powerful, dramatic. It sounds like an exaggeration but this 9th is really impressive. Rattle doubles the winds in this symphony and when he reaches the recapitulation he unleashes his forces while keeping all the detail. The antiphonal dialogue of the violins, and the handling of coda are also splendid! The 2nd movement is also remarkable. And now the slow movement: this is, without exaggeration, the most moving 3rd movement I’ve heard since Furtwangler’s and Giulini’s. Rattle’s pays so much attention to the “inner voice” of the strings, as a critic has put it. The choral finale is outstanding. As I said for the 6th symphony, you’ll either love it or hate it. The reason for this being Rattle’s fluctuations of tempo (something both Barenboim and Furtwangler have done in their interpretations of these symphonies). The CBSO chorus is amazing; a real tour de force. If you don’t mind the tempi decisions you’ll adore it.
To conclude, it is true that Rattle is inconsistent in his choice of tempos. Usually he adopts Beethoven’s metronome marks but not in all symphonies, or even movement within the symphonies. The VPO plays really well, in some parts it is really remarkable. The recording of the symphonies is warm but clear.Excellent engineering guarantees that there are no coughs, considering these are live performances. The antiphonal effect of the violins is caught successfully. Overall, this would not be my first choice for a Beethoven cycle if I had to have just one (I’d probably choose either Barenboim or Blomstedt for their consistency). But it offers many insights and is certainly among the best.
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For quality of presentation this is the set to buy - EMI Classics have excelled themselves with the packaging, opting for a box with slide-out drawer, opened via a tab of green silky material, holding the 5 CDs, each of which is presented in a card wallet with full track details and times. The box artwork is second to none, the front showing an almost-smiling Sir Simon Rattle, the rear showing a view of him from behind, hands clasped in satisfation.

Also included in the box is a 90 page (30 in English) hard backed booklet, printed on quality paper showing track listings, details of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, notes on the Urtext editions and of pictures of Rattle, Beethoven, Beethoven's home in Vienna, the orchestra, and much more. The booklet interestingly includes the year in which each symphony was composed and first performed.

The sleeve notes state 'live recordings' but thankfully there is no audience noise noticeable.

Sound quality is outstanding with good instrument clarity and separation and although the interpretations may not suit everyone's taste - tempo changes are quite abundant - the performances are energy-charged throughout with a real feeling of passion and an urgency to the music. Rattle's conducting certainly brings out the best in the performers.

This is a quite individual set of interpretations by Rattle which will draw mixed views, but personally I like the sheer excitement of the symphonies irrespective of the accuracy to the score.
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on 22 February 2005
I don't have a lot to add to the fairly comprehensive reviews below- just to say that both the interpretation -certainly vibrant and original, but never just for its own sake- and the recording quality are excellent. The treatment is much more sensitive (I feel) than Karajan's, and although that is not to detract from Karajan, his approach never created such richness and warmth alongside its undeniable power.
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on 12 August 2008
It's a pity that Simon Rattle's Beethoven symphony cycle is merely among the latest in a series of recent recordings using Jonathan Del Mar's newly revised Barenheiter edition of Beethoven's symphonic scores. Otherwise, it might have earned recognition as the best recent Beethoven symphony cycle recording. Still it is by far the best Beethoven symphony cycle recorded by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. But should it be regarded as first choice for those interested in a Beethoven symphony cycle, especially one using the new Jonathan Del Mar-edited edition?
Simon Rattle demonstrates in these recordings that he is a fine interpreter of Beethoven's scores, which he indicated previously in his Beethoven piano concerti cycle with pianist Alfred Brendel, recorded too with the Vienna Philharmonic. However, he doesn't quite match the lyricism or textural richness attained by Harnoncourt, Zinman or Abbado. Instead, for most of the symphonies, these are simply well played, clinical accounts of the Jonathan Del Mar scores. The most notable exceptions are those of the Third Symphony (Rattle's interpretation, especially of the first and second movements, is among the most exciting I've heard, easily comparable in quality to Abbado's most recent account, Giulini's with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, or any of Karajan's.) and the 9th Symphony. The 5th symphony is a fascinating interpretation too, and one of the few which adhere closely to the brisk interpretations favored by Zinman and Abbado. Unfortunately, the 6th symphony lacks the majestic lyricism I've heard in Bruno Walter's classic account with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra and the rich textures I've heard in Harnoncourt's and Abbado's (When I met Harnoncourt earlier this year I had remarked to him that I was not impressed with his COE recording of the 6th symphony, but it's actually much better than I had thought, since it is a rich, texturally glowing account which requires repeated listenings.) versions. And the worst account in this cycle has to be Rattle's interpretation of the 7th symphony; much to my surprise he isn't as inventive as Abbado in using swift changes in tempi or as successful as either Carlos Kleiber or Abbado in emphasizing the score's intricate architecture.

So should you buy Rattle's account of the Beethoven symphony cycle? My answer is yes if you treasure the rich sound produced by the Vienna Philharmonic in its concert hall, the Musikverein. The sound quality is among the best I've heard, equal to Abbado's. But if you prefer more exciting, dynamic accounts of Beethoven's symphonies, then I would recommend instead, Harnoncourt's and Abbado's, with Zinman's a first choice for those on a budget.
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Say what you like about Sir Simon, he can make you reconsider any music he turns his mind to, and for such well trodden territory as Beethoven, that's no mean feat.

If your ambition is to own one superb Beethoven Symphonies cycle, under one conductor, you should look elsewhere, because this set is problematic with its wonky balances, sometimes erratic playing, and hit & miss interpretations.

What it is, though, is LIVE & ALIVE. No overmanicured product this. People can never get bored, never stop delving into these masterpieces, even now, and Sir Simon certainly quarries new detail and reinvigorates allegros all over the place, even if there is less refinement than one might wish for. Some of the instrumental lines sound almost vocal. The very imperfections only help to keep us alert.

Let me just say that I got a lot of pleasure from this set. The Achilles Heel is to be found on the last disc: a mistaken performance of the Ninth with an Ode To Summer Holiday ("We're all going on a....") - you'll understand if you listen. It's a goof and quite unworthy.

I got most pleasure from the Eroica and the Pastoral, but warts and all, it's well worth a listen, if only to make you marvel again at the greater achievements of others (I'm thinking Furtwangler, Wand, Karajan,etc). One day, maybe, Sir Simon will knock-out a world class Beethoven Cycle. This ain't it, but as an exploration, it's fascinating.
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on 31 March 2003
I've been very lucky with Beethoven. In the 50's I owned several of the symphonies by Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra, which I consider to be the best of that generation. Then I had the full cycle from Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, (the 1974 version), an absolutely great cycle, easily the best of the next generation, although it is now unobtainable. The 1963 Karajan/ BPO cycle is available, though, at a good budget price, and is itself highly recommendable. Then a couple of years ago I was lucky enough to get the pure, classical Beethoven cycle of David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, at an absolute bargain price. Zinman is classical Beethoven at its best.
However, the new cycle of Beethoven Symphonies by Rattle and the VPO beats them all. It's at the mid-price range, which makes it a clear bargain, for it really is the best. The orchestral playing is far superior to anything I've ever heard (much praise should go to the EMI recording engineers for capturing every tiny nuance of this great orchestra), and the interpretations by Rattle and the orchestra are mind-blowing in their intensity. Just as an example, try the Fifth. Under Rattle and the VPO it sounds so fresh and new that it makes you feel you've never heard it before - every time you hear it - unlike other versions, (including the deservedly renowned Carlos Kleiber recording),which sound like you've heard it all -been there, heard it, bought the t-shirt - 1000 times or more.
If you like your Beethoven classical and straight, and a little same-y, buy the Zinman, but if you like it Romantic, striving, exciting and new, a fresh experience that time and time again will rattle your teeth and blow your socks off (whether you're male or female), buy this version. Yes, buy it. Buy it! After all, it's been ever-present. Treat yourself.
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on 22 February 2008
I've owned this set of Beethoven Symphonies, for some two years now and have not played them very often because I have not fallen in love with them. Why? , because, as much as I like Simon Rattle as an artist I find his over-fussy, erratic approach to these works a turn off!
The orchestral sound is too metallic and rough edged and an obvious attempt by the sound engineers to make the orchestra sound like a period-piece outfit. Which, the VPO, is of course not! and should never be tampered with!!!
The tempi are by-and large too quick and firey! and doesn't let the music "breathe"..
And what was he thinking of with that disastrous attempt at the first movement of the 9th symphony. With the constant speeding up and slowing down of tempi. Sorry but Beethoven's music is nigh-on as near perfection as any musical score can be and you just don't mess them about like this!!.
To some out there, these recordings maybe a breath of fresh air, but I think Rattle was just trying to be too adventurous here...
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