* BEETHOVEN: The Complete Nine Symphonies

by | Apr 26, 2009 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: The Complete Nine Symphonies

Performers: Berlin Philharmonic/ Claudio Abbado
Studio:  Medici Arts 2057378 (4 DVDs) [Distr. by Naxos]
Director: Bob Coles
Video: NTSC 16:9 Color
Audio: PCM Stereo; DD 5.1; DTS 5.1
No Region Code
Length: 387 Minutes; Bonus: Interview with Abbado – 26 minutes
Rating: *****

In the year 2000, near the end of Claudio Abbado’s term as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, he embarked on his second cycle of Beethoven symphonies for DGG. The first, recorded in the 1980s, was rather lackluster; tradition-bound middle-of-the-road, and rarely rising above the perfectly acceptable but not-too-illuminating. By the time the Berlin tenure was ending, Abbado, who is one to relish a continuing reevaluation of his approach to many different composers, had completely rethought the Beethoven canon, and surprised the world by completing a cycle that was entirely new and fresh. Abbado, who always enshrined such figures as Furtwangler, generated a series of readings that were more redolent of Toscanini. Tempos were up, repeats were in, original metronome marks obeyed, and the world fell prostrate in adoration over the new set, with nary a dissenting opinion.

Except mine, maybe.

I was not convinced. There was something too slick, too accommodating, and too politically correct about that set. Worst of all, the sound was not what you would have expected—there was no depth, a limited circumscribed tonal spectrum, and a certain lack of clarity. Only the First and Last symphonies displayed real flair, and the whole set felt like a work in progress rather than any finished considerations.

At the time Abbado was about to face the toughest challenge of his life, a bout with cancer that he heroically fought near the end of 2000 and into 2001. He has stated that it was his contact with music, its study and reflection that helped pull him through. By the time these recordings and films under discussion were made in 2001, there was a sea change in his approach, not radically different from the 2000 set, but more of a well rounded and finished product. His reconsideration of these works based on his 2000 recordings reaped great benefits during these live concerts given in Rome (and filmed there, but also presented in Vienna) with the Berliners, curiously at that time consisting of about 80% new players since the last Karajan year.

And they are a wonder. This set is a miracle in any number of ways. When the 2000 set came out, I was much more impressed with Daniel Barenboim’s lovely and richly burnished recording with the Berlin Staatskapelle. That set to me ranked Barenboim among the great Beethoven interpreters. (Personally, any conductor who can manage six out of the nine is a great Beethoven conductor—Barenboim got seven). Abbado also manages seven; only Six and Eight—the most common pitfalls, by the way—seem to me a little substandard, the former because of its relative lack of repose, the latter because Abbado seems to miss some of the humor. But even the errors in those are not enough to impede enjoyment, and the other seven are simply superb.

Abbado makes a big deal about tempo relationships among movements, and even pronounces a doctrine that would include all of the symphonies as some sort of set, a proposition that I find just a little dubious. But the results here are hard to argue with. And the set is in no way extreme or eccentric—these are not Norrington aberrations with slavish dictates of tempi and phrasing. Everything here is perfectly considered and well thought out, with sensible tempos and gorgeously balanced playing. He does reduce the strings, using even three basses and four cellos in symphonies like the Forth and Seventh. But there is no lack of boom and bang in these performances, and Abbado is clearly comfortable with the execution and results.

Only the Ninth is retained from the 2000 set for some reason, a performance that takes place in Berlin instead of the Academy of St. Cecelia in Rome. You can see the visible wear and tear on the conductor’s face that took place during the health battle; in Berlin he looks robust, whereas considerably more age than just one year appears on his face in the other films. The camera work is wonderful, everything you could want, including a Claudio-only shot that gives you a continuous orchestra member view of Abbado if you so choose. The sound is in three formats, my personal preference being the DTS 5.1 surround option, vivid and lively. The PCM and Dolby seemed about the same to me.

The best news is that this set sells for around $30, an incredible bargain, as DGG has released it in CD-only format for $40. His earlier 2000 set is still full price and not cheap, so this is a no-brainer. For one of the best Beethoven sets ever recorded, even though it is live, get this issue—there is no way you will be disappointed.

— Steven Ritter

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