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on 30 March 2012
Beethoven Symphonies 1 - 9. Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. With Charlotte Margiono, Rudolf Schasching, Birgit Remmert and Robert Holl. Recorded 1991. Teldec.

Harnoncourt's cycle starts off very impressively, aided by superb sound. It is hard to believe that this cycle was recorded live - it has the feel of a spacious studio acoustic. As with Karajan and Solti, Harnoncourt treats the First with just as much vitality and strength as the more mature symphonies: the tempi are solid not rushed and the instruments have a beautiful sheen to them, whilst never sacrificing body. The climaxes are just that - not the trashy bashing of a drum which so often disfigures Norrington's earlier period performances. I particularly liked the middle movements in this recording: the splendid playing is balanced with knife-edged drama and really spot-on tempos. The same is true of the Second: Harnoncourt really makes a dramatic statement about the piece and the result is really electrifying.

Undoubtedly any performance of the Eroica will have to bring out its harsh edges at times - especially in the first movement. Harnoncourt particularly excels in those moments - the characterisation of the first two movements is very powerful: dramatic and almost violent without being vulgar. Sometimes more repose is required in the marche funebre, but it all comes off quite nicely - the credit also due to the continued excellent playing of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

The Fourth does not quite equal the some of its parts. It starts out very beautifully and with a real sense of mystery, but much of it is a bit all over the place. I didn't really feel a cohesive vision. The slow movement was a particular movement - not as beautiful as it can be. Tempos were a bit erratic and the playing less refined than elsewhere in the cycle.

The Fifth is certainly a strong performance: tempi are never rushed and you don't feel like the whole thing descends into farce like the one in Norrington's cycle. The superior playing from Harnoncourt's forces also make it streets ahead of Norrington's version. I would probably rate this Fifth in front of Karajan's and Solti's 1970s recordings as well. At times, you might feel that the performance is just a little too hard pressed - but I don't really object: I think the tension and uplift of that final glorious movement is well caught. What I like is that nothing feels 'clipped' in this version and it is also not rushed - a great boon. Still, it fails to displace Bernstein 1961 as my all time favourite recording of this great work.

The Harnoncourt Sixth is another completely satisfying performance. It may be surprising how the first two movements are quite slow. I personally think the pace throughout the symphony is well judged. The central movements are accelerated, but the beauty of the symphony is always foremost. But I wouldn't call it the most dramatic or tense account of this elusive masterpiece. I think Karajan, for all of his detractors in the Sixth, captures those qualities more than any other (except perhaps Bernstein).

Harnoncourt exploits every possible dynamic contrast and instrumental detail in the Seventh. It is a richly dramatic reading and the octane level just keeps rising as the symphony moves through its third and fourth movement. The very last, the allegro con brio, is played here better than any other recording I have - the conducting and the playing are simply inspired. For once you feel that everything is just right in this movement and the joy and attraction of this amazing movement is really exploited. Earlier, however, I find that some of the playing is scrappy and the strings thin. Still, it's all quite involving. For period enthusiasts this clearly outmatches the Norrington in every way (as usual).

The performance that most strikes me in this cycle is the unassuming Eighth. It is given a marvelous performance here. Whilst the playing isn't as good as that of the Berlin Philharmonic, for example, it makes up for that with a really outlandish account. It is lively and elegant and always surprising.

Like the other period performance of this symphony with which I am familiar (the Norrington), the Ninth is the low point in Harnoncourt's otherwise solid cycle. It is bland and uninspired, capped off by uninvolved contributions from the four soloists in the finale. It could very well be that this symphony requires something deeper than scholarship and fizzy tempos. These conductors seem to overlook this symphony and treat it like it's just a run-through rather than one of the cornerstones of symphonic literature. For a truly inspired account, one is urged to go to Furtwangler's Bayreuth 'vision' above all, followed closely by Solti and then Karajan in his 1977 account. They convey something of the perfection that this symphony represents.

Overall, then, this is quite a good cycle. Originally, I thought it to be rather boring. On second hearing, it strikes you as being quite fresh and spontaneous without sacrificing either nuance or some of the grand old tried and true methods of conventional performance (hence the title of this review). This proves the importance of listening more than once to cycles like these. Unlike Norrington's ghastly approach in many of these works, there is genuine respect and feeling for the spirit of Beethoven in most of the works. With the exception of the Fourth and, more seriously, the Ninth, this cycle is a safe bet for first timers, but an even stronger recommendation for seasoned collectors who have yet to visit the period 'scene'. But because the Ninth is so piecemeal, I couldn't give it a full five star rating. Four stars then.
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on 6 June 2017
Wanted this set for a long time. Have not been disappointed. It is doubtful that the perfect set of all nine symphonies exists but this comes pretty close IMHO. The playing of the 6th (Pastoral - my least favourite) really opened my ears to the beauty of this symphony. Would recommend.
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VINE VOICEon 18 August 2016
Although I rarely listen to Harnoncourt's recordings, the news of his death prompted me to listen to his Beethoven symphony cycle. I borrowed it from my local library and made notes. As Harnoncourt played a part in the paradigm shift of Beethoven symphony performances, I thought it would be good to hear his rendition of the cycle. Like Hogwood, Norrington, Bruggen and the Nanover Band before him, he favoured smaller orchestral forces, clearer textures and quicker speeds that are close to Beethoven's metronome marks. These recordings were well-received on their initial release, as the playing and conducting were more polished than the other HIP versions of Beethoven that had been released up till then.

In these early 1990s recordings Harnoncourt did not always go the whole hog as Gardiner later did, but varied his approach as and when it suited each symphony. I imagine that Harnoncourt could have alienated hordes of listeners if he had kept to Beethoven's fast metronome markings. So there are some incidents where he approaches the tempo of past performances. I know I didn't entirely agree with his approach, but at least he made a strong effort to characterise each symphony and present a valid perspective on the music at that point in time. The COE plays wonderfully for him and each section, especially the winds, gets a chance to shine. My concern, at least in the longer symphonies, was that the strings did not feel present and did not exert their sforzatos. Also I found that their spiccatos were a bit slurred and could be lighter. I followed along in my Barenreiter study scores when listening to these recordings and didn't feel comfortable with slurred spiccatos. The Teldec recordings are clear, but they tend to sound a little airy. I note that the orchestra may be distantly balanced, especially the strings, and there is not enough body in the sound. Other recordings like those of Karajan, Gardiner or Szell allow the orchestra to have more body in their sound. Many of these traits don't matter that much in the early shorter symphonies, but they impede my enjoyment of Harnoncourt's takes on the later, meatier works.

The Short Symphonies
The short symphonies present no problem for Harnoncourt. He manages to bring out the Classical spirit in the music while highlighting Beethoven's novelty. The First gets the cycle off to a strong start. Although the first movement takes time to warm up, the slow movement trips along and has charm. The Scherzo presents no problems and the Finale rounds off the reading in high spirits. The Second fares better because the subito fortes are more clearly defined. In the first movement the tuttis are strong and the trumpets lent a telling detail. Another telling detail comes in the development when Harnoncourt heightens the menace in the minor-key sections. He also brings out the menace in the stormy sections of the steadily paced slow movement. At times I wished that the F major section of that movement could have asserted itself a little more. At bar 116 the lower strings are a little too polite. The Fourth is a highlight in this Harnoncourt cycle. This performance holds up well in light of his end-of-life retake of this symphony (and the Fifth) with the Vienna Concentus Musicus. Amidst its light, tripping exterior Harnoncourt highlights the shades in the slow introduction and in the slow second movement. Harnoncourt brings out the telling detail of the menace at bar 49 in the slow movement when the tutti takes the music into E flat minor. It comes as a relief when the waters are calmer and the music is in G flat major. I did feel that Harnoncourt's Eighth was undercharacterised and sedate and did not have enough rambunctiousness and high jinks in the outer movements. The first movement is a little bit subdued and the sforzatos are not so assertive. However, the middle movements make up for any shortcomings. The second movement is sparkling and witty, and benefits from bubbly winds. The Minuet is very good and has a warm, lyrical Trio.

The Longer Middle-Period Symphonies
Of the longer middle-period symphonies I found that I liked Harnoncourt's Eroica and Seventh better than the Fifth and the Pastoral. In the Eroica Harnoncourt makes a persuasive case for HIP Beethoven here even though HIP in anything means hurry-up speeds. The reading that he and the COE deliver is nicely sculpted and still highlights the novelty of the music. The first movement benefits from thrust, torque, pronounced sforzatos and the telling details (echo effects and the trumpet part that breaks off before hitting the high note.) The funeral march has gravitas and is touching at the same time. The Scherzo and Trio bound along nicely and Harnoncourt sustains a nice sense of build-up through the succeeding variations of the main theme in the Finale. In the Seventh Harnoncourt brings out the rhythmic drive that is so crucial to the symphony. The Allegretto is the best-shaped part of the performance and the major-key sections are warm and lyrical. The Finale of the Seventh puts Harnoncourt in his groove, bringing out the stomping rhythms of this music and allowing the climaxes of Beethoven's "Rossini crescendos" to emerge naturally towards the end.

After the successful rendition of the Eroica, I was not so taken with Harnoncourt's versions of the Fifth and the Pastoral. I don't deny that the performance is well-put together, but I felt that the first two movements had a lack of tension compared to Kleiber Jr (Carlos Kleiber) or Gardiner and the ORR. In the third movement the horns assert the four-note motto so tellingly. It is felicitous to see Harnoncourt repeating the Scherzo and Trio rather than proceeding to the coda as most performances do. The transition to the Finale is well-handled and Harnoncourt allows the brasses to step out.

The Pastoral felt a little bit relaxed and lacked a certain lift, especially in the first and last movements. The first minutes of the first movement felt a little bit earthbound and I felt far from happy that the violins slurred their spiccatos. I also note this problem in the Shepherd's Thanksgiving finale. However, as the movement progressed, I was at least happy with the chugging rhythms that propel the argument forward. The slow movement struck me as the best part of the performance and a highlight of the entire cycle/ The wind playing is felicitous throughout the movement, and not just during the bird-calls at the end. Harnoncourt also highlights some counter-rhythms that tend to be buried. The peasants' merrymaking is light-footed and spirited but I did wish for a bit more contrast between this party and the ensuing thunderstorm. I did feel that the intensity and the heat did not sustain themselves throughout the movement.

The Choral Symphony
Harnoncourt's Choral is a difficult matter, as this symphony presents challenges to any conductor who attempts it. Performers who adhere to Beethoven's fast metronome markings may be accused of trifling with the profound utterances in this music. However, one can always make a case for the de-Brucknerised, back-to-the-source renditions of the Choral and the paradigm shift that Harnoncourt, Gardiner, Mackerras and others sought to promote. Harnoncourt's first movement is a bit uneven in the exposition because he takes the secondary subject group at a slower tempo than the primary subject group. The development is a bit steadier and there is a bit more thrust in the fugue. At times I note that the music did not exert itself, notably at the angry outburst of the recapitulation. The Scherzo and Trio in the second movement fare better even though the running quavers were a bit too slurred and less crisp

The third movement runs for 13 minutes, the usual speed in HIP renditions of this movement. I know that there's a risk that the rush-hour culture could have impacted on this movement especially after the drawn-out and languid Brucknerised versions, but it's worth remembering that Beethoven wants the slow notes to be the beat unit in this Adagio. Moreover, it bears a famly likeness to the slow movement of the Pathetique sonata and needs to be felt that way. Anyway, Harnoncourt handles the movement well and sustains the lines and phrases. There is enough contrast between the two themes. At times I wish that the second variation with the semiquavers and demisemiquavers could have been a bit more flighty as if the music is carrying itself away.

Although the finale starts off well, I felt that it was a bit episodic and disjointed. In the cello and bass recitative, I noted that most phrases tended to end with a diminuendo. However, the Joy theme started off earnestly. I did note that the full tutti version was a bit subdued and came across as anticlimactic after the buildup in the preceding variations. The soloists and chorus are a fine team and settle by the second stanza of the Joy theme. Things wake up a little in the Turkish March variation with the fife and drum. I know I wished it could have gone a little faster, but at that time the idea of a faster speed for this section had not been bandied about. As this march variation shares a family likeness with the corresponding march variation in the Choral Fantasy, it would be good if they could both go at similar speeds. Anyway, the tenor is less militaristic and makes the effort to animate the words before the entry of the male choir. In the rest of the movement Harnoncourt alternates red hot sections with more relaxed section, but not always successfully. The fugue after the Turkish March, the first Seid umschlungen, Millionen section and the next-to-closing quartet for the soloists are a bit relaxed, but there is more fervour in the Freude outburst, the double fugue and the final Presto-Prestissimo section. So I didn't feel any sustained momentum in this rendition of the Finale.

This Harnoncourt cycle has its ups and downs. Though I feel doubtful about some of the traits, at least I've had the chance to hear it and not hate-listen to it. If I had heard this cycle before hearing Gardiner's cycle, my feelings might have been different. But then, maybe they wouldn't. I have opened my heart to Harnoncourt's spin on these symphonies but I had doubts about some aspects. Some symphonies are more successful than others. However the cycle felt a little uneven. Among the paradigm shift versions of Beethoven, I wouldn't place this Harnoncourt set above the robust, biting and vigorous cycle of Gardiner and the ORR, or Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. However, I still appreciate Harnoncourt's role in the paradigm shift of Beethoven symphony performances.

While I say this, I wonder what a Harnoncourt re-recording of the full cycle would have felt and sounded like in this day and age. After Harnoncourt re-recorded the Fourth and Fifth, he called off the rest of his Beethoven performances and recordings when he knew he was dying. I mention the possibility of a re-recording because I read Harnoncourt's interview in the booklet in which he says that his performances are not meant to be definitive. So I spared thoughts of how a Harnoncourt re-recording would sound like. Despite this it's good to know that this Harnoncourt cycle still holds up well in the 25 years since it was made.
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on 23 February 2007
Reading the review above makes me want to write a review here for the first time. Who knows what that listener wanted...for me, this is simply a most wonderful series, with such clear, bold playing (especially in the unison passages). The dance figures are fresh and alive, and when the whole band gets going, the effect is like a landscape dancing. The detail and clarity of the playing is a marvel. For me, it was a conversion, after years of trying to love these pieces, but hearing them usually played, I guess, with either sententiousness or big-hair over-heightening of the romanticism. A lovely piece of playing which leaves the intelligence of the writing to speak for itself, and doesn't force anything.
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on 8 January 2003
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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on 22 January 2004
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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on 30 July 2007
Like Paul Callick I felt, noticing the strangely negative first review here, that I must likewise try to restore a better view of this wonderful set.

I have owned several complete sets of the cycle, from Klemperer to Abbado, and for what it's worth the shimmering Berlin sound would make Abbado still my favourite among more expensive sets. Frankly I ignored Harnoncourt's set when it first appeared, even though the BBC's CD Review said "This astonishing recording shall influence and alter out perception of Beethoven for years to come". Why? Because I had listened to some early Harnoncourt and thought him pedantic. Wrong! How prejudiced we can be.

When a friend eventually played the Fourth for me, my jaw dropped open. The familiar drama and majesty of the great opening Adagio and Allegro were there in force, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on pin-point accuracy, drop-dead form. (Mostly non-historic instruments, though the trumpets are natural ones.) But Beethoven, who can so often seem like a cosmic force or a wizard, so dramatic is his vision, was here also speaking to me, in a coherent single, wise but smiling voice. (Almost with a wink, too!)

Harnoncourt's long-term understanding of the rhetoric of music - that it is always somehow a person speaking to us - is in full flood throughout this whole cycle. Everything is singing, and dancing at the same time - the very Austrian qualities so dominant in Haydn and Mozart leading into Beethoven and Schubert. Whether a movement is a fiercely rhythmic one or divinely lyrical, this is the most fully human (still awesomely powerful because of the orchestra's playing, but powerfully human) presentation of Beethoven I have heard. I loved the man even more because of meeting him in the music.

It seems to be no accident that the greatness of these recordings comes in part from the fact that Harnoncourt apparently could only finally bear to come to Beethoven after recording Schubert's symphonies. That young composer's noble, transparent humanity allowed Harnoncourt to read in Beethoven not the music which was so distorted in use by the Nazis in Harnoncourt's own childhood, giving him a self-confessed problem with Beethoven, but the music of the first-ever composer to risk an independent career, and the extraordinary integrity with which he held in one soul his sufferings and anger, his longings, loves and visions, and his profound insight into human life.

So if you want to hear the Beethoven you (thought you) know, go with say Abbado or Zinman - wonderful, informed readings. If you want to meet Beethoven afresh, as if for the first time, and hear his voice, Harnoncourt and the COE have recorded a miracle.
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on 19 October 2012
I was brought up on Herbert Von Karajan as the top Beethoven conductor (Narrow-minded, I know) I later discovered that Klemperer, Furtwangler and Carlos Kleiber (to name a few) all had things to say. But in choosing Harnoncourt as my second complete set I have to say I have no regrets.

I'm not going to talk through the individual symphonies - I'm not that geeky, and the other favourable reviewers do that job - but Harnoncourt's rendition of the third symphony really got to me. Also, I loved the sense of an orchestra moving straight onto the next movement - you can feel those musicians working their bows and reeds off.

My one gripe is the fabulous andante moderato theme of the third movement of the 9th symphony. It's a little hasty, and held far less emotion for me than Karajan's interpretation.

It won't be the last full set I will buy (I'm intrigued by the Anima Eterna edition) but for the newcomer (or non-geek) I would not hesitate to recommend it.
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on 10 August 2011
Paradoxically, Nikolaus Harnoncourt manages to bring forth a typically idiosyncratic reading of Beethoven's symphonies without sounding extreme in any direction. These 1990 recordings were based on extensive research and knowledge of historically informed practice (HIP), no surprise given his expertise in the baroque and classical repertoire as well as his intellectual approach (see for instance the added disc to his Bruckner 9th exploring a reconstruction of the incomplete fourth movement.)

Though the Chamber Orchestra of Europe uses HIP techniques such as minimized vibrato, it plays modern instruments, and while Harnoncourt's readings can be quirky and/or revelatory in many passages, the timings are not lightning-fast as with some HIP performances. In general this is a very sober traversal which makes me wonder why it caused such a brouhaha on its release. I am glad to have added it to my collection because Harnoncourt's take is *interesting,* not because Harnoncourt's take is overall the best Beethoven. His Third and Fifth are standouts, while the 9th is dull. This cycle is certainly not replacing my Barenboim or Wand sets, let alone Furtwangler.

I do find it interesting that Harnoncourt, who is Austrian, stayed away from Beethoven for a long time. He had what he called a "Beethoven-Problem," a "deep inner resistance" to performing Beethoven that persisted into the 1980s because of how he had seen the music misused in his youth, its elements of "the will to conquer and the demand for power" utilized to manipulate the masses (from Monika Mertl's liner notes). Apparently Harnoncourt finally came to hear Beethoven differently via Schubert, and worked backward from Schubert's apprecation of and reaction to Beethoven to finally reach his own. He had to consciously "purge his interpretation of all that is unthinkingly heroic."

This set of 5 discs in a cumbersome fold-out jewel box (my fold-out came loose, but it still sits in the case) is not as elegant as a Brilliant-style box, but it does include a 120-page booklet with 30 pages of commentary in English, including an interview with Harnoncourt.
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on 1 July 2009
Brilliant as this is,there's a box with the Piano,violin,triple,overtures,ballet,and Missa Solemnis included--buy this,and never look back!
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