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Thread: Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Reviews Pt1

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    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    Default Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Reviews Pt1

    Firstly thank you to Granate for his thought-provoking, sometimes controversial but always interesting guide to many of the major Beethoven symphony cycles out there. As I said in his threads, the purpose of this thread is a supplement to Granate's threads and offer some of my own views on some of the numerous cycles out there....cycles that may be unknown to some, have few (or no) reviews online or were simply skipped by Granate for various reasons. I'm not gonna review every other cycle out there as it would take me ages (there's well over 150 that I know of) but I will discuss some of the better or more obscure ones (IMO). Apologies if between us we've missed your favourite set but some just didn't make the cut (for various reasons) and there are still a few I've not heard, I am still listening to or only own partial sets so it would be unfair of me to comment. There are so many perfectly adequate sets out there that anyone buying the sets below would not be disappointed with some aspects of these cycles, however the cream of these rise to the top and should be investigated. Incidentally, I will discuss tempi but it usually doesn't matter to me whether my Beethoven is slow, mid-paced or quick. I can appreciate all types.

    I'm not gonna split these up in to categories but I will give each one a rating which is as follows:

    C Satisfactory cycle. Ok, but nothing to shout about
    B- Good cycle but flawed (see decriptions in thread).
    B Good standard. A decent library set or better.
    B+ Very good set. Some very impressive performances. Well worth investing in.
    A- Excellent set just missing a little something to take it to the top of the pile but all performances very good or better.
    A* Wow! Currently the cream of the crop out there in LvB Cycleland. Buy, borrow or listen, now!

    I know that's a bit simplistic but it's the best system I could come up with in limited time. Ok, here goes! I'll start near the bottom.

    Barshai / Moscow (1-8 only)
    beethoven barshai.jpg
    Barshai recorded this incomplete cycle in the late 60s/early 70s but could not finish it with a 9th symphony as he didnt have the full forces he required "to do it justice". So what do we get here? Mainstream, traditional readings, big on phrasing and very well played by the augmented Russian forces. However, there's very little to make these recordings stand out. Although here's no poor account in the 8 many lack the intensity of Karajan, Blomstedt or Klemperer, for example and apart from a very enjoyable Eroica there's little to set your world on fire. Yes, it's consistent but it's also not too memorable, even if the performances are uniformly good. If you know the Kletzki recordings then think of those here but without their beautiful inner detail. Barshai does Shostakovich so much better. The analogue sound is very good and there's very little to complain at with these middle of the road interpretations.

    Grade: C

    Herreweghe / Royal Flemish PO
    Beethoven herreweghe.jpg
    This set caused me the most trouble in reviewing it as I liked it upon first listen. It sounded fresh and interesting. Unfortunately repeated listens reveal the flaws in Herreweghe's vision. There are some nice moments here. The 4th symphony, the first 2, the 8th and most of the 7th (apart from a leaden final movement) are good however you can't get away from the feeling that the whole cycle is HIP for the sake of being HIP. What I mean is that where other conductors build on Beethoven's repetitions and bring out extra detail and refinement Herreweghe's readings simply rehash the main themes in similar fashion. After listening a few times this makes these accounts a bit samey. The recorded sound is largely very good but there are moments where details are clouded and Herreweghe loses the pulse of the symphonies. This is particularly evident for me in the 5th and 6th. Elsewhere I find the Eroica puny and the 9th just plain wrong (the first movement is too fast and sleight and the last movement sounds very odd). Compare this to Immerseel or Krivine (to a lesser extent) and you'll see what I mean.

    Grade: C

    Drahos / Esterhazy
    beethoven drahos.jpg
    At the budget end of the market came this interesting set from Drahos and his stripped-back ensemble. Whilst the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia is a more chamber-sized group they play with a sensibility and drive that makes these attractive accounts. This works particularly well in the even numbers of which the Pastoral is rather nice indeed. Elsewhere this Beethoven-lite approach has its up and downs but there's no doubting the enthusiasm of the players. The first movement of the Ninth suffers a little from this lack of power even when these forces were bolstered by further re-enforcements however, the rest of the 9th is thorougly engaging and one of the best in this cycle. I particularly like a bolstered 5th symphony that has plenty of guts and a super finale but all performances are perfectly satisfactory or better.

    Grade: B-

    Dohnanyi / Cleveland
    beethoven dohnanyi.jpg
    Technically this cycle is immaculately played. One would almost say 'polished'. The recordings are all top-drawer and as a guide to the 9 you would not be immensely disappointed if the whole cycle was in your Christmas stocking. However, there is something missing in the detail. I've listened to these performances quite a few times and yet you get a feeling that there's a routinness about them. As proficient (and often brisk) as they are, they lack the incisiveness of the best performances and only the 4th and 9th really stand out for me. The rest are exquistely played but the 6th and 8th (especially) lack the emotion that I really want to hear in my Beethoven. If only Dohnanyi's Beethoven was as impressive as his Dvorak.

    Grade B

    Weller / CBSO
    beethoven weller.jpg
    This was one of the first cycles I bought and it's still available online (usually in the vol.1 and vol.2 format) quite inexpensively on the secondhand market. Weller and the CBSO conjure up very decent performances of each symphony but, like Dohnanyi, the fire is missing. There's nothing wrong here and some parts are lovely (I especially like the 6th and the first two symphonies) but where Beethoven demands heat we get warmth. This is particularly evident in the 7th (where Weller omits an important repeat) and in the 9th. Dont get me wrong, there is much to admire here - Weller's hushed moments are quite beautiful and his phrasing is mostly spot-on but the sound could be better which makes the big climaxes come across as a bit lame and bloated. However this is still a good set and you get that 'realisation ' of the first movement of the 10th (which sounds about as much like Beethoven as SClub7 do to me - not Weller's fault).

    Grade: B

    Part two to follow in a moment.......Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Review Pt2
    Last edited by Merl; Jul-03-2018 at 12:11.

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  3. #2
    Senior Member Robert Pickett's Avatar
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    I'm enjoying this!

    Of those covered so far, I only have the Drahos (which I think is a bit better than your grading) and the Krivine, which would get an A* from me. But neither of us is right, neither of us is wrong....

    ....I assume you are aware of the cycle done a few years back by Sclub7? It may not be definitive, but it puts One Direction's controversial set very much in the shade!
    Last edited by Robert Pickett; Jul-03-2018 at 14:06.

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    Senior Member realdealblues's Avatar
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    Dohnanyi rates a bit higher for me at an A- but the rest I think you're bang on. I don't hear a lack of emotion with Dohnanyi and I find his 6th to be absolutely wonderful with a fantastic storm. I actually find his 9th to be one of the weaker selections from the cycle getting bogged down a bit in the middle, but the whole cycle is very on par with Szell but with better sound. He just lacks a bit of Szell's intensity and almost supernatural ability to keep everything at the highest level all the time. My summation is if Szell is an A+, Dohnanyi is an A- and well worth owning.

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