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on 10 October 2016
Has Jansons produced one of the finest modern sets of Beethoven symphonies, as some of the other reviews suggest? Or is this just another 'pretty good' modern set, delivered by people for whom Beethoven is just a part of the daily routine of a modern professional orchestral musician? The latter view at times seems right to me, but even after decades of listening to Beethoven, it is still difficult to find the right perspective and make a fair judgment. Credit has to be given to Jansons for the many things he does right, and for a set that is basically excellent—and pretty consistently excellent too—and which mostly does rise above mere routine.

Jansons tempos, with few exceptions, are unerringly right, and at some points he builds up to moments of real passion. But I wonder if his tempos don't also reflect some kind of corporate consensus about where we are now with Beethoven, since even though they work well they are also deliberately non-controversial.

The playing is excellent, and the sound quality too is excellent, providing state-of-the-art clarity. But then why is it that listening to the crappy mono sound of Toscanini's 1949 Beethoven 2nd, some details emerge with such vivid robustness, but by contrast seem pale or almost inaudible in Jansons' version? In the first movement of the 2nd, for example, listening to (or listening 'for') the trills at 06:33, I realized that I was hearing them mostly because recordings have taught me they are there—under Jansons' direction they almost disappear. (Anyone who is upset because they can't hear the cowbells in Strauss' Alpine Symphony, or Mahler's 7th, should be able to feel my pain.) Yet those trills generate a growing sense of drama and anticipation, and it's vital that they be clearly enunciated. At times like this I have to decide not to listen THAT closely, or I'm going to realize that something important is still missing from this set.

So sometimes the music-making here seems routine—even if highly skilled, highly professional routine—rather than passionately committed. Even highly professional musicians sometimes need to be cajoled, or terrorized, or inspired out of normal human laziness and routine. But the days when conductors like Furwangler or Toscanini could do that are gone. Toscanini used to shout above his orchestras as they played: 'Sing! Sustain!' It was the extra energy of digging into the notes, and holding and sustaining them, produced the kind of radiant, powerful, singing sound that great conductors once got from orchestras. But conductors and musicians aren't on a Mission From God anymore; it seems to be enough that a professional conductor gets up in front of an orchestra that is also professional and then they sight-read professionally through the work. No need to get too involved; we all know how Beethoven goes already, don't we?

This is one of my two most recently acquired sets of Beethoven symphonies. The other is by de Vriend (see my review), and I felt it deserved 5 stars but this one only 4. It's not that his is more free of imperfections—quite the contrary. But de Vriend's is consistently fresh, vivid, and exciting. And he sometimes rethinks Beethoven in ways that take time to get used to, but that ultimately really makes sense and become convincing.

So:

The 1st pleased me with excellent tempo choices and a lively delivery; I think it's a fresh and interesting look at this symphony. The 2nd follows suit, and Jansons' sensible and fairly energetic reading is basically an excellent one. But not quite a great one.

The opening movement of the 3rd is strong, vivid, and well-paced, and commendably includes the exposition repeat that is crucial to both the musical and dramatic structure (when the mood of the exposition is sustained for a longer period of time, the contrasting nature of the development is heightened and its drama deepened, and the ground needs to be suitably prepared for the appearance of those tremendous dissonances and tensions). Jansons paces the funeral march effectively, and with touches of originality, and it builds to genuine intensity in the fugato section and the climax. By the third movement the orchestra is on its toes and really responsive, and the variations of the final movement also build well. This is a successful Eroica. As an aside, there is another great traditional, big-band Eroica that is well worth hearing, which is the Blomstedt/LA recording (not his Statskapelle Dresden one) that is now available in the boxed set overview of Blomstedt's career. It is big-boned, refined (surprisingly so), powerful, and perfectly shaped, and for the most part is paced slightly more 'traditionally' than this relatively fleet, modern one from Jansons. My favorite at the moment, however, is the Eroica by de Vriend—vivid, exciting, and fresh throughout.

In the first movement of the 4th, Jansons doesn't produce the kind of dramatic tension in the slow opening introduction or the transition into the main body of the work that can be heard elsewhere. He does manage to whip up a certain amount of energy by the middle of the movement, and the same applies in the final movement. So it's a kind of average 4th with no missteps, but Kubelik, Toscanini/BBC, and Hogwood, in his period-instrument performance, do much better at finding excitement, energy, and beauty throughout the symphony.

It's hard to have too many complaints about this 5th, even if it doesn't achieve quite the same intensity of rhythm, phrase, and structure that great 5ths of the past sometimes have. The performance is a good one, but probably won't quite be at the top of my listening list of 5ths. Instead, the recording by composer Peter Eotvos comes to mind, as well as Kubelik on DGG, and I recall there was a live Solti/Vienna recording that I used to like quite well too. Others will surely want to include Carlos Kleiber and other usual suspects on this list and I don't object. This is good 5th, but I hesitate to say a great one.

I basically like Jansons's 6th. He avoids sentimentality where it can so easily creep in in the first two movements, and as always seems to pace everything well. But the 6th is my least favorite of Beethoven's symphonies and I'm not going to get into the weeds discussing whose is best here.

I have mixed feelings about Jansons' 7th. The first-movement introduction is again well-paced, but played in a chugging, metronomic, marcato style that creates an odd, bouncy effect rather than a grand or powerful one—kind of off-putting. But the movement proper takes off and develops well. Likewise he builds the 2nd movement well, with mystery and excitement, but then there's that important, rising three-note figure that first appears at 00:57, and thereafter throughout the movement. This always used to be played with a graceful, waltz-like lilt, but it has apparently become fashionable now to play it with an aggressive upward swoop that lands hard on the final note, like someone revving their motorcycle engine—vrOOM, vrOOM! To my ears, this is unmusical and off-putting. Has some new 'critical edition' of these works told us that we've been playing Beethoven wrong the last century or two, and we now have to change? In the final movement, Jansons does what (almost) everyone else does, making the assumption that faster is always better and more exciting. But if you take such a fast tempo that the rhythms can't be articulated cleanly, they lose their effect, and everything just becomes tense and breathless, rather than 'the apotheosis of the dance.' Many conductors have shown how well this movement works at slightly slower tempos: Toscanini (NYPO/1936), Bernstein, Kubelik, and Leinsdorf, to name a few. Jansons is right on the edge of being too fast here, but on most days I find it pretty exciting. Excellent sound also contributes to the success of this performance. For an equally driven approach, and one that to my ears succeeds in even more spectacular fashion—certainly in the first movement—there's de Vriend, who offers one of the most exciting and best-conceived 7ths I've heard in quite some time.

Janson's 8th appears to go quite well at first, and generally does. But the lovely cascade of falling string phrases that appears at about 08:32 in the first movement is a bit jumbled and disconnected. Unfortunately, those phrases, despite constituting one of the quieter passages of music in that movement, are in fact really it's climax—a focal point toward which the entire movement has been building. This reminded me to listen again to Gunter Wand's 8th, and it is as I recalled it: besides being perfectly shaped and not jumbling those crucial phrases, it is also bursting with a kind of sunny, spontaneous energy that is tremendously appealing, by contrast with the slightly heavier tread of Jansons' first movement. I guess I still prefer Wand's, and the drama of Leinsdorf/Boston, and maybe Kubelik on DGG too.

The 9th here seems excellent, basically a more sharply etched version of the 9th from Jansons that was released separately several years earlier. Recording quality (and venue) account for part of this, and this is in fact beautifully recorded in every respect, even if the sound is slightly less full-bodied than the earlier one. The balance between soloists, chorus, and orchestra is ideal, and the tonal shadings of the chorus are caught beautifully as well, with no glare or distortion. For myself, on most days I'd usually rather listen to the 4th or the 8th than the 9th, or, for a choral work, the Missa Solemnis, but most likely I'll return to this one. But it isn't a performance that will cause anyone to forget the likes of Furtwangler or Toscanini in this music though, by a long shot.

All in all, for a series of alert and in some cases very energetic live performances, with generally excellent tempo choices and mostly free of bothersome eccentricities, this gets 5 stars. For sometimes delivering professionalism without passion, I deduct one star. Others might deduct more.
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2 years on from set of these symphonies by Thielemann and the VPO the virtues of which I extolled in my review comes a new set by one of the pre-eminent conductors of this era and played by one of the greatest orchestras before the listening public not just today, but at any time.

Any conductor presenting such a set is on a hiding to nothing-there will inevitably be comparisons with recordings by the likes of Furtwangler and Toscanini and in the modern era, Karajan (times 4), Klemperer, Schmidt-Isserstedt, Cluytens, Haitink, Rattle, Abbado, Chailly, Harnoncourt and Bohm to name but a smattering and that's without straying into HIP territory (which I would only do if I fell through the back of the wardrobe!).

The reaction to this set will depend on what the listener expects from recordings of these often performed symphonies-if you are looking for revelatory performances which uncover new and challenging aspects of these works then this set will not be to your taste.
If you are happy for the recordings to be revelatory of the genius of Beethoven, and not to emerge as "Karajan's Beethoven", "Klemperer's Beethoven" or whoever's-but rather "Beethoven's Beethoven" then you will enjoy these performances as much as I have.

The recordings were made throughout 2012 at a series of concerts in the Herkulessaal in Munich, and in the majority of cases, the renowned Suntory Hall in Tokyo (only 3 &6 are from Munich). There is very little difference in the acoustics captured from each venue, and a "spot the difference" exercise would be really difficult.
The "extras", to which I will return, were all recorded separately in Munich in different years.

In my review of the Thielemann set, my main comparison was with the highly regarded set by Chailly earlier in 2012 in which Chailly used a smaller orchestra of modern instruments but adopted tempi near to Beethoven's own metronome markings with breathtaking-and breathless- results.
Thielemann's much broader approach was more to my taste, though even my eyebrows were raised at the grand and imperious Seventh which was stately but not lively.
Jansons is nearer to the approach of Chailly-note that I say nearer, not near-for his tempi are in general swifter, his rhythms more sprightly, and the works are propelled with more momentum than by Thielemann.

Jansons is a highly regarded interpreter of Haydn, and so the first 2 symphonies sparkle and dance most affectingly. The 3rd is powerful and dramatic with the most beautiful playing since Karajan-the Horn Trio brings tears to the eyes. The 4th is perfectly balanced, the 5th is well pointed, highly dramatic and with a breakneck finale. The 6th is just glorious, opening at a relaxed and flowing tempo reminiscent of Cluytens and the glorious Giulini recording of the 1960's, but picks up and ultimately recalls the famous recording by Bohm more than any other-indeed, it is the Bohm cycle which is perhaps the closest in character to this one (certainly NOT the Thielemann as suggested by SFL in his review on amazon.com).

The Seventh is what it should be-the epitome of the dance-and has all the bounce and sparkle eschewed by Thielemann in his version, with a second movement of momentous power and drama to offset the gaiety, the Eighth is the charming hors-d'oeuvre to the entrée of the Ninth, which is beautifully balanced with a stirring finale and for once has excellent soloists drawn from the ranks of the companies of Munich and Vienna.
The playing is exquisite and virtuosic throughout-I heard no lapses-and the rich warmth of this orchestra sounds "just right"-I didn't miss my beloved VPO at any point.
With glorious recording, I would have to give this set the nod over the Thielemann.
However, we are not finished yet-for there are "extras" as I hinted earlier, and these are not the usual Overtures or Ruins of Athens, but contemporary works commissioned to reflect each composer's reactions and impressions to a chosen symphony.

Most listeners will like me be familiar with the names at least and probably the music of Schedrin, Kancheli and Widmann, but names such as Staud and Mochizuki and the unpronounceable Serksnyte are likely to be unfamiliar.
All of the music is approachable, and indeed the Kancheli is actually enjoyable though I struggle to see the relation to Beethoven, and many will find these to be valuable additions.
I'm bound to observe that I don't think they illuminate the symphonies which apparently inspired them, and I certainly don't want to hear them as they are presented, interspersed between the symphonies, but they can be accessed separately of course and many will no doubt enjoy them more than I do. I will return to them on occasion.

If I apply the description "conservative" to this Beethoven set, it is intended as a compliment.
These naturally flowing interpretations allow the music of Beethoven to speak to us in an unfussy, unmannered and totally convincing way, and with playing of breathtaking beauty and superb recording, they now form my top choice among modern recordings. The modern additions are either a welcome bonus or irrelevant dependent on your taste.

Classic versions already mentioned hold their place of course, but this handsomely presented 6 CD set in BR Klassik's usual livery and with extensive notes is offered at mid-price, and warrants a firm 5 Stars. Wholly recommended. Stewart Crowe.
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on 5 April 2015
This set of Beethoven, highly regarded by Gramophone and other professional reviewers, is a cycle to return to over and over again. True Toscanini, Abbado et al have a legacy of sets that are dynamic, sometimes searing, scaling heights that leave one gasping for breath and drained, leaving one both exhilarated and weak at the knees. Jansons are far from ordinary as one reviewer implies, yet can be listened to day in and day out giving pleasure over and over again which is not necessarily as easily done with other interpretive greats. Do not be put off by pretentious verbiage but rather trust magazines like Gramophone and then your ears. The review in Gramophone said it was as though Beethoven was in the room - a comment not lightly made. (I have to say the non Beethoven items do not appeal to me, but that is a matter of personal taste, not a matter of performance). This set of CDs is worth owning for the Beethoven alone.
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on 14 January 2014
Beethoven had every right to make the same comment that Nietzsche made of himself: I am dynamite. His address - understood as both trajectory and target - is prophetic. When I'm next in the Sistine Chapel, I expect to see that Michelangelo has allocated a spandrel to him beside the likes of Amos, Ezekiel and Isaiah.

Here in Janson's cycle of the symphonies, Zeitgeist prevails again. Our society is suspicious of big, heroic gestures. Admittedly, they were the undoing of so many in the Twentieth Century. Metaphysics stinks in a pluralist, secular society. In response, the likes of Zinman, Abbado (thrice!!!) and Rattle serve up a sleek, energetic, eco-friendly Beethoven where there's no imperative to change one's life or cross the Alps with Bonaparte. Add Janssons to their ranks. This cycle is beautifully played (even if there's no extra torque at key junctures). Recording-wise, it is astounding. The fizzer of a Ninth aside, I enjoy it. It's nice and dramatic. Outside these parameters, it means nothing. Here today and gone thereafter with no resonance. It should be increasingly hard to listen to the Eroica as one ages and dies as a liegeman of suburbia. Here, depressingly, is another exception to the rule. Perhaps Happy Acres can play it over the public-address system to gee up the old buggers as they enjoy their bingo.

Consider this. Furtwangler's Beethoven 9th from 1942 is a conflagration of suns; the last two movements of Uncle Otto's B4 from 1958 are the `barbaric yamp' of legend; the Fifth from `Karajan in Moscow' is reparation for Barbarossa. Antediluvian though I be, I want a Beethoven who tells me to live big; fight hard; love hotly; hate heatedly and rejoice exceedingly. A decaffeinated, carbon-neutral, fat-free Beethoven is ear-candy and that's about it.

In closing, one has to make reference to the contemporary works that spice this cycle. Assuredly, I'm not the man to appreciate them. Shakespeare might say that while Beethoven bestrides the world like a colossus (or at least he did in yesteryear), these lesser creations walk under his huge legs and peep about to find themselves graves of sorts.

Why waste what little time you have left on such trinkets and beads of glass? The Real awaits you!
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on 8 March 2014
These Beethoven symphonies are beautifully performed and recorded and show Mariss Janssons at his best. The additional works are perhaps a matter of taste.
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on 18 May 2015
Good listen
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