Recordings of all the Beethoven symphonies with their chief conductor are always a milestone in the artistic work of the Berliner Philharmoniker. So it was with Herbert von Karajan and Claudio Abbado, and expectations are correspondingly high for this cycle conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Where does the special status of these symphonies come from? Simon Rattle has an explanation: “One of the things Beethoven does is to give you a mirror into yourself – where you are now as a musician.” In fact, this music contains such a wealth of extreme emotions and brilliant compositional ideas that reveal the qualities of the orchestra and its conductor as if under a magnifying glass.
It's increasingly common to hear the symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven played on original instruments and according to authentic period practices, which have become de rigueur for many contemporary conductors and orchestras. But Martin Haselböck and the Vienna Academy Orchestra go one step further by playing them in their original Viennese venues, thus creating something close to the sound and impact of the first performances.
Throughout the 1970s, conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein was invited to lead the greatest orchestras of the world in a number of concerts that since such time have become legendary. Now, these historic performances are available on DVD for the first time. This Leonard Bernstein collectors's boxed set is the ultimate concert experience on DVD, and it is also the perfect companion to the Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts DVD set.
In February 2001 Abbado and the BPO were guests at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome to perform the Beethoven symphonies. For these, Abbado chose to use a new edition by Jonathan del Mar, which consists of existing manuscripts, and "corrections by Beethoven," which gave the conductor the opportunty to "throw new light on his reading, which takes a consistent and lucid approach to articulation, phrasing and dynamics." The conductor elected to use fewer strings, reducing the bass group in symphonies 1, 2, 4 and 8 to only three double basses and four cellos. He also uses only two horns in symphony 5, three in symphony 3. The result is an uncommonly transparent listening experience. And the performances are spirited to say the least, no dawdling here whatever. There always is a forward impetus to these dynamic performances which are magnificently executed by the orchestra.
For those who own either box, these DVDs are self-recommending. Other listeners may rest assured that there are many reasons to acquire this set.
Abbado has been the most successful of contemporary conductors of Beethoven symphony cycles at blending period and modern orchestra performance practices. Where Barenboim is the staunch traditionalist, unafraid to appear to be reactionary in his single-mindedness, Haitink is the centrist, as ever, and Rattle is the pragmatist, picking and choosing (and not always successfully, in the final analysis), Abbado brings to the richness of the modern ensemble the brisk tempos and fresh-sounding spirit of the period-instrument movement.
If you're looking for a set of all nine Beethoven symphonies, this one is pretty hard to beat. It's the most consistently fine interpretively, as well as supremely well played and gorgeously recorded.David Hurwitz