Title - Beethoven: Complete Symphonies [5CD/Blu-ray Audio]
Artist - Andris Nelsons/Wiener Philharmoniker
For those not in the know, Andris Nelsons is a Latvian conductor and is also currently the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Gewandhauskapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.
Luckily for all us fans of his, Grammy-winning conductor Andris Nelsons takes on the full cycle of Beethoven's eternal symphonies, leading the Vienna Philharmonic in a series of new recordings all made at the Vienna Musikverein.
The cycle, entitled Beethoven: Complete Symphonies [5 CD/Blu-ray Audio] was released this past October 4th, 2019 via Deutsche Grammophon, and also includes (as noted) a rather stunning Blu-ray Audio with the complete repertoire in True HD sound quality.
Beethoven has been central to Andris Nelsons’ work since he began his career in the early 2000s. The Latvian conductor received outstanding reviews for his 2013-14 Beethoven cycle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and was critically acclaimed for more recent Beethoven performances as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Leipzig Gewandhausorchester.
In March and April this year he joined the Vienna Philharmonic, the world’s supreme Beethoven orchestra, for a series of concerts including works by the composer in Vienna, Hamburg and Hanover, and for the final recording sessions of their complete symphony cycle at the Vienna Musikverein.
Nelsons said it was an honor and a privilege to be invited to perform and record the symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic.
“The journey of interpreting Beethoven’s symphonies signifies a great opportunity, responsibility and challenge, but in the end, it’s not about me, it’s purely about the genius and universal quality of Beethoven’s music, which speaks to each and every individual,” Andris Nelsons explains.
"Of course, I need to have a vision, and our task as musicians is to find a fulfilling way of presenting Beethoven’s ideas to listeners, but this will always be very subjective and deeply personal.”
Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3 "Eroica"
Symphonies Nos. 2 & 4
Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6 "Pastoral"
Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8
Symphony No. 9
Symphonies Nos. 1-9
In truth, there are nearly 200 full cycles Beethoven’s nine Symphonies, performed by practically all respected orchestras and conductors out there today.
I mean, on Deutsche Grammophon alone, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has few notable cycles: Bohm, Bernstein, Abbado (in his early, often overlooked cycle) and Thielemann.
There’s also Rattle’s digital cycle on Warner (originally EMI), not to mention many single Symphonies recordings.
In other words, 250 celebrations or not, Adris Nelsons (the leading conductor of his generation) is entering a crowded field, including cycles by the Wiener Philharmoniker, whom he personally chose for this recording.
Beethoven’s nine symphonies reveal the unique qualities of his compositional art, which astonished his contemporaries. They also reflect the turbulent age in which he lived and demonstrate the remarkable changes he wrought in the genre itself.
Each work marks a new step from the one before: from the more conventional First, still reminiscent of Haydn and Mozart, via the revolutionary Eroica, with its incredible expressive range, the Fifth and Sixth, both radical in their different ways, and the dancelike vitality of the Seventh, to the wholly original, dramatic and life-affirming Ninth, whose message for humanity has long transcended the concert hall.
To the best of my recollections, the last time a record label captured and released a complete Beethoven cycle with the Wiener Philharmoniker (aka Vienna Philharmonic) was in 2014, with Christian Thielemann conducting.
Not a well received project, as I recall, and one lacking audacity and boldness, here on this brand new release, Andris Nelsons attempts to refresh the said same Beethoven cycle in a way that we all deserve to hear it.
And for the most part, he does just that. Whilst symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 lack the depth and heart that Rafael Kubelik poured into this multi-ensemble enterprise back in 1976 (No.1 with the London Symphony Orchestra and No. 2 with the Concertgebouworkest), symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 are beautifully reminiscent of the old days with Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt with the Vienna Philharmonic too; steady tempos, smooth phrasing, and compelling brass, without the violent whims.
Symphony No. 6 is sweet and tender with even the storm being tamed and symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 are carefully played and articulated; repealing the Carlos Kleiber pandemonium curse for good, me thinks.
Symphony No. 8 reminds me of Kubelik in Cleveland; sweet and often robust when necessary, however, it doesn't top Bernstein's 1963 recording with the New York Philharmonic, in my humble opinion.
And lastly, the 9th lacks the Herculean, cathartic strength that it was born to possess, but still remains a rather fine sterile execution; although it leaves the audience craving for more of that cathartic elixir.
In closing, the performances found here on Beethoven: Complete Symphonies [5 CD/Blu-ray Audio] - which also marks the start of Deutsche Grammophon’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth next year - most definitely, and without a shadow of a doubt, capture a remarkable, and always endearing cycle.
The sound is excellent and the beauty of the wind instruments was clearer than I have ever heard (especially on the included Blu-ray Audio CD), but what really sets this cycle apart, and again, for the most part, is the sense of performance.
For when conductors with big personalities partner with the Vienna Philharmonic, the results can swing strongly into good favor with audiences, or dive deeply into the mires of negativity.
Here we find a middle of the road approach, if I'm being totally honest. Maintaining a higher standard of culled sounds from musicians obviously performing music they must love dearly, its finest, stand out moments are in the Second, Fourth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.
Lastly, a shout out to Deutsche Grammophon, who did a astonishing job on sound production; the brass instruments are sharp and crispy, woodwinds are sweet and creamy, and the strings are smooth and often robust.
Camilla Nylund – Soprano
Gerhild Romberger – Mezzo
Klaus Florian Vogt – Tenor
Georg Zeppenfeld – Bass
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Andris Nelsons – Conductor
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