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.
Recorded between 1964 and 1968, Paul Kletzki's respected cycle of Ludwig van Beethoven's symphonies on Supraphon rightly should be classified as a historical item for specialists, rather than as a recommended option for anyone seeking a great (and great sounding) modern set. Kletzki was an admired and popular conductor, noted for working with both European and American orchestras, and his interpretations of Beethoven are intelligent and insightful, regarded by some reviewers as among the finest of their time; the performances are still valuable for their musicality and significance among mid-20th century offerings.
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.
EuroArts has released a special edition of all nine Beethoven Symphonies played by the Berlin Philharmonic under former chief conductor Claudio Abbado. Each of the symphonies is a masterpiece in itself - they are all quite different, each representing the composer's musical idiom at a particular stage in his development. This DVD includes symphonies Nos. 2 and 5 and offers a 'Conductor Camera' in the famous Fifth Symphony showing the maestro from the perspective of the musician. The recordings feature interpretations that are the fruit of decades of Claudio Abbado's involvement with Beethoven.
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