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Thread: Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Reviews Pt6

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    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    Default Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Reviews Pt6

    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!

    Maazel / Cleveland
    beethoven maazel.jpg
    Another one I hadn't listeed to for some time. Revisiting this cycle was strange as I could barely remember hearing it the first time round. The Cleveland Orchestra have recorded these symphonies with Szell and Dohnanyi and if I were you that's where you should place your money (well I'd actually go for Szell's superb cycle well above Dohnanyi). A very dry recorded sound and very close miking don't help Maazel here but it's also what's lacking in Maazel's vision that hampers these performances. They're just too tame. In the 5th, rather than fate knocking on the door we hear a fluffy unicorn politely tapping on the door, asking you to sponsor her for a jaunt around a flowery meadow. The Eroica and Choral are far too polite and sensible for my tastes. The even numbered symphonies suffer less from Maazel's lightness of touch and he does bring out the dance rhythms well elsewhere. The Clevelanders (especially the brass section) are on fine form, as usual, but it's ultimately just too 'nice' and safe. It lacks Dohnanyi's balance and drive and definitely Szell's bite. Uncompetitive and barely satisfactory.

    Grade: C

    Masur / Leipzig Gewandhaus (DDD)
    beethoven masur.jpg
    Like Gielen, this was Masur's 2nd time round with the LvB symphonies (with the same orchestra). Everyone knows Masur's analogue 70s Beethoven cycle. It's been repackaging and appeared in many forms over the years, even appearing remastered for SACD by Pentatone in the past few years. However, I've always found that cycle infuriating. Whilst it's a fairly decent one, there's some very ropey performances in it. Masur kills the tension in a very dull Eroica and the 5th and his Pastoral crawls along (that flabby, insipid Eroica is one I've always hated the most). So what did Masur do differetly the second time round? Well, firstly, as regards tempi, very little. Speeds are like before, fairly moderate. This time it's about the phrasing and you can hear the effect of Gardiner and the HIP movement approach on him. The better digital sound also makes this set preferable to his earlier one but there's stil something missing. You still get the feeling that Masur never quite got to the emotional heart of thes great symphonies. It's a good set and one worth having if you can get it cheaply, especially for a very good climactic 9th and very enjoyable 4th and 8th. Tbh, there really isn't a bad performance or recording. It's just missing that certain feel. You can do far worse but you can also do far better. Oh and a word about that awful cover with LvB looking like a zombie - NO!

    Grade: B-

    Zinman / Tonnhalle
    beethoven zinman.jpg
    It was certainly interesting listening to this cycle again, years after I bought it. Upon release this set was very well received and lauded by some critics. However, with repeated listening and the plethora of superb HIP cycles it's kinda fallen down the pecking order for many and there is a reason for this. As superbly recorded (and it is brilliantly recorded) as it is it just misses something. Yeah, I know a few people love and I may upset some here it but there's things that just dont quite add up. Yes, the recordings and performances of Symphonies 5,8 & 9 are very good indeed and Zinman and his troops do get some great detail in but there just isn't enough to engage me, elsewhere. Whilst tempi are very fast (some are the fastest available) and never dull he rushes the Pastoral, lacks punch and weight in the 7th (but gets great tempi) and makes the 4th sound, well, a bit boring. I don't rate that Eroica much, either. It lacks depth and the dynamics that the likes of Gardiner and Gielen give the work. It's not a bad cycle by any means (far from it) and there's much to enjoy but listen to this and then listen to Norrington's last cycle or Gielen's on Hannsler and you will come to the same conclusions as me, that Norrington and Gielen do it all far, far better. However with prices of this set dropping to around £5 secondhand online you wont go far wrong getting this. It's certainly a fresh and enjoyabe cycle. It's just doesn't go the whole 9 yards. Maybe 6 yards......very quickly.

    Grade: B-


    Stangel / Pocket Philharmonic Orchestra

    This one's a bit of a rarity. Basically it's a cycle recorded using the pared-down forces of the Pocket Philharmonic ("The World's Smallest Orchestra"). There's just one of each instrument so if you're expecting big-band Beethoven this is most definitely not for you (the orchestra only uses 12-16 musicians even in the 9th). As expected sometimes this featherlight Beethoven pays dividends - the 2nd and parts of the 7th dance and move, the 6th sounds lovely and fresh and there's the odd moment in the other symphonies where the spirit of the symphonies is captured beautifully. The playing is superb too. It's had rave reviews from some places and has met with some indifference from the bigger review sites. For me, it all sounds like a bit of a novelty. Basically what you get is all symphonies played by a bolstered string quartet. It's quirky, different but ultimately unsatisfactory to my ears. Kind of like someone playing the whole of Led Zeppelin's Kashmir on a kazoo. All the big moments get lost in the wash and where Beethoven's scores demand bold brass and lush strings we get a thin, rather scrawny soundscape. Don't get me wrong, it's novel, exquisitely played and beautifully recorded but it's not my kind of Beethoven. Satisfactory if only for the recording and playing of the orchestra.

    Grade: C (just)

    Gielen / SWR (Hannsler)
    beethoven gielen.jpg
    This was Gielen's 2nd go at the Beethoven symphonies. His 1st set (on EMI) was far from a bad one and possessed a ruggedness and forcefulness that would please many who like a hard-hitting Beethoven. However, that set was hampered by a slightly bassy and muddy recording which spoiled an otherwise good, but a mite unrelenting, cycle. The 2nd time round Hannsler, instead of EMI, gave him superb digital sound. Textures are far more transparent and there's no murkiness at all in these recordings. But what of the performances? Well, if you rate the Skrowaczewski set, and like Gielen's previous set, then you'll love this one too. Gielen balances the best of HIP sensibilities with old-world subtelties, captures the mood of each symphony superbly and lets the music breathe (unlike in his very driven first cycle) before unleashing the power. In a nutshell this is a class cycle. Repeated listens yield some superb phrasing and skillful manipulation of tempi. The 6th is a prime example. He's brisk but pulls back on the throttle enough for all details to be revealed and the music to speak. All performances are very good or better but I particularly love what Gielen does with the 5th, 6th, 7th & 8th which manage to be be muscular and lithe at the same time. Tempi are quick, Gielen doesn't hang around but he doesn't rush either. There's the odd flubby moment from the orchestra but it's all so engaging you hardly notice. Excellent cycle. You definitely won't be disappointed if you get it.

    Grade: A- / A*
    Last edited by Merl; Jul-09-2018 at 09:24.

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    Senior Member Robert Pickett's Avatar
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    I've only got Zinman of these. Used to like it, went off it quite quickly. I magnanimously concur!

    Will look into the Gielen set. I recently invested in his Mahler recordings, and am enjoying them very much. Wonderful clean sound, not devoid of Mahlerian Angst, though; quite broad, too, which somehow surprised me!

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    Senior Member Malx's Avatar
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    Good to see your positive comments about the Gielen set Merl, that was one of the other sets I referred to in an earlier post as one of a few sets I liked that you hadn't at that stage commented on.
    It is a set that rather flew below the radar, neither showy nor dull, not really HIP or trad but a very acceptable amalgam of lots of these things.
    Last edited by Malx; Jul-12-2018 at 22:24.

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    Senior Member Robert Pickett's Avatar
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    Just been listening to the Gielen set. I think your high opinion of it so far seems fully justified!

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    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Robert Pickett View Post
    Just been listening to the Gielen set. I think your high opinion of it so far seems fully justified!
    I'm not gonna say "I told you so".

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    Thank you Merl, for all of your posts/reviews.

    I am of the opinion that you can never have/hear too much Beethoven.

    Unfortunately I am also particular about what I enjoy: I don't like the vast majority of what I've heard (probably around 30 full sets and another 50 or so individual symphonies). Your reviews, however, have given me a lot to explore going forward!

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    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by classfolkphile View Post
    Thank you Merl, for all of your posts/reviews.

    I am of the opinion that you can never have/hear too much Beethoven.

    Unfortunately I am also particular about what I enjoy: I don't like the vast majority of what I've heard (probably around 30 full sets and another 50 or so individual symphonies). Your reviews, however, have given me a lot to explore going forward!
    Why, thank you! That was the point of doing them, tbh. I wanted to help people out and a lot of these sets are either not reviewed, poorly reviewed, have reviews 'informed' by favouritism / commercial means or are just plain rare as rocking horse poo. I realise that these are merely my opinions and often people have other opinions and hear different things but hopefully they give you an unbiased idea of what these sets are all about. I am not a fanboy of any particular conductor and likewise I don't dislike all performances of certain conductors/orchestras so I've taken all these recordings on merit NOT reputation.
    Last edited by Merl; Jul-13-2018 at 15:51.

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