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Thread: Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Reviews Pt9

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    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    Default Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Reviews Pt9

    Part 9 of my lesser known Beethoven symphony cycles reviews is here (feel free to groan or shout "Hallelujah")! Many thanks, as before, to Granate for his original LvB cycle challenge. I sometimes didn't agree with his reviews but they're his opinions. We all hear something different. Here's the latest lot. If you have any comments or questions about any of these cycles then feel free. As before, gradings are.....

    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 are very impressive
    A* Wow! Currently the cream of the crop out there in LvB Cycleland. Buy, borrow or listen, now!


    Nagano / Montreal SO
    beethoven nagano.jpg
    The most recently recorded of this particular round-up, Nagano and his Montreal forces recorded these performances live (not that you'd notice though). In short it's a fairly decent set, possessing lean textures, interesting inner detail, little rubato and some odd phrasing. Of the recordings, the best of the bunch are a really enjoyable 8th that skips and dances and bristles with energy and a tight and punchy 4th. Other accounts are more varied and whilst there's nothing particularly bad, a tiresome Eroica, a bland Pastoral and an oddly phrased 2nd don't help Nagano's cause. The rest of the performances are good but the 9th is let down by a rather strange, distantly recorded sound but if you like your Beethoven with brisk tempos, very well played and with a lot of politeness (think Jansons) then this could be a set for you to enjoy. Btw, ignore the spoken word segments if you have the original discs. Although they're supposed to frame the performances in the time they were released they invariably come over as a lot of pretentious old tosh.

    Grade: B-

    Attanasi / Camerata Cassovia
    beethoven attanasi.jpg
    Walter Attanasi recorded this cycle in the late 90s with these Slovakan forces (except the 9th where he's supported by the Slovak RSO). It's certainly nothing to write home about so I won't dwell here. Apart from a decent 6th and a good start to the 7th (which gets progressively worse as it goes on) it's a pretty poor set, topped off with a pedestrian 9th. Avoid.

    Grade: D

    Batiz / Mexican State SO
    beethoven batiz.jpg
    Anyone familiar with Batiz's recordings of Bizet's orchestral works may know what to expect from him and his Mexican orchestra but nothing quite prepares you for this cycle. Tempos are eccentric across the set, phrasing can be exaggerated and there's little consistently. Add to that an orchestra trying to play Premier League music with some League 2 players and you may expect a total disaster. However, not all is as it seems. Some very brisk speeds mark various movements of 8 of the symphonies (in a time before HIP) and Batiz keeps the speed up through an energetic but occasionally poorly played Eroica, a lively 2nd, a schizophrenic 4th, a volatile 5th and a bubbly 8th. Otherwise there's ok accounts of the 1st and the 6th (the 3rd movement is particularly well played and enjoyable but the Storm is laughable). The fun really starts in the 7th. Batiz sets off at a fair rate of knots but obviously the timpanist isn't paying enough attention. When the first big timpani thwacks arrive in the first movement he's half a measure late and from there Senor Timpani just gets more carried away. This obviously affects Mr. Batiz and he compensates by going for it. It makes for engaging listening. No one could ever accuse this set of being boring! However, apart from Batiz's strange tempos (pretty fast in fast movements to slightly laboured in some slow movements) what really makes it entertaining is the sheer enjoyment of the Mexican orchestra. They somehow follow Batiz's tempos and play with such utter enthusiasm it's hard not to enjoy some of these odd accounts. It's such a shame that the worst (and slowest) performance is saved for the end - a rather mundane 9th with some pretty awful soloists. If you get a chance, listen to that 7th, though. It gets more chaotic as it gets on and the finale left me speechless (but smiling). Lol.

    Grade: C (just for sheer enthusiasm)

    Vasary / Budapest SO
    Beethoven vasary.jpg
    An interesting cycle. I must admit that this was another set I expected to be an utter car crash (its rarity meant I had never heard it). However what actually lets this cycle down is the recorded sound and not the actual performances. It's a shame too as Vasary is no slouch in this late 90s Hungaroton set. Speeds are fairly brisk, there's bags of energy and some nice playing from the Budapest orchestra, however the live recorded sound is strange and variable with prominent strings and especially woodwinds but a lack of brass and timpani that affect many of the earlier symphonies, especially. After the 5th (I'm guessing these were recorded in numerical order) the sound improves and hits its peak in a boisterous, beautifully phrased and really engaging 7th, with a glorious slow movement and thrilling finale. No performance is less than satisfactory and the cycle is rounded out by an impressive 9th (that 2nd movement really dances). Shame about the sound. One in dire need of a remaster. Quite a surprise.

    Grade: B-

    Karajan / BPO (Live 1977)
    beethoven karajan.jpg
    My final review in this set of 5 is Karajan's 5th cycle! Culled from live recordings by Tokyo FM, in November 1977, these performances are an intriguing snapshot of Karajan live at (arguably) the height of HvK and BPO's popularity. They are currently available on Blu-Ray audio. For those of us unable to witness and hear Karajan live these are important historical documents of possible the most (in)famous conductor of all time and this set doesn't disappoint. Without waffling on what I will say is there's some excellent stuff here. Dynamically these are different readings than the studio 77 set in that although there's the typical Karajan momentum, energy and rhythm to these accounts there's a lot more detail than Karajan's smoother studio accounts. The real gems here are unsurprisingly the odd numbers. The 1st is an excellent recording, and the highlight of the set for me, but there's also a marvellous Eroica (did he ever do a bad one?), a powerful and giddily received 5th (that brings the house down) and a 7th that gets better and better before concluding in a thrilling finale. Although the 9th is very good it's let down by a slightly inferior recorded sound (the analogue recording is a bit hissy here) but even then he and the BPO seem to really hit their stride by the second movement, there's a beautfully played adagio and the finale is as good as his other accounts. Elswhere there's a very good 2nd, a decent 8th and surprisingly a warm and engaging Pastoral with a powerful storm (is this his best Pastoral?). The only let-down is a over-weighty 4th that never really gets going and is much too heavy. What you do hear in these recordings is more prominent woodwind, better brass defintion (they get really punchy in the 7th and there's even a flub at the beginning of the finale - I bet HvK was horrified) and some really interesting dynamics. Whether you are a Karajan enthusiast or not you should hear this cycle. It's damn good. It doesn't eclipse the 63 studio set, for me, but it's a fascinating insight into Karajan's live Beethoven.

    Grade B+

    So that's all for now. You may agree with my summations or you may not. In any case I hope you appreciate that these are merely my views about these performances. You may feel differently about these cycles. If so, then feel free to comment in the threads. I've tried to cover a lot of lesser-known or rarer sets here so at least you can get some idea of what these performances sound like. I hope these reviews help. If you're interested then look at my other reviews, below.

    Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Reviews Pt8
    Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Reviews Pt7
    Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Reviews Pt6
    Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Reviews Pt5
    Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Reviews Pt4
    Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Reviews Pt3
    Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Review Pt2
    Merl's Beethoven Symphony Cycle Reviews Pt1
    Last edited by Merl; Feb-12-2019 at 00:35.

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    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Thanks for the interesting view of Karajan live. He was a different conductor (dependent on his mood). The 4th was a slight disappointment on the studio 77 set being somewhat over-weighty compared with 63. You say, 'there's even a flub at the beginning of the finale - I bet HvK was horrified' - I don't think he would have been as he sometimes sanctioned studio recordings where there were flubs. All part of live performances as he knew. Pity they are not more available.

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    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DavidA View Post
    Thanks for the interesting view of Karajan live. He was a different conductor (dependent on his mood). The 4th was a slight disappointment on the studio 77 set being somewhat over-weighty compared with 63. You say, 'there's even a flub at the beginning of the finale - I bet HvK was horrified' - I don't think he would have been as he sometimes sanctioned studio recordings where there were flubs. All part of live performances as he knew. Pity they are not more available.
    Although I've not gone into timing comparisons with other Karajan cycles yet, DavidA, I'll guess that there's very little difference between this one and the 77 studio set, once you take out the audience applause, at the the end of every symphony.

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    Senior Member Kiki's Avatar
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    Glad you like Karajan's 77 Live cycle, and you're probably more enthusiastic about it than I am! In general while I like the drive and the excitement, I can barely sense the revolutionary nature of the music. I do like his leaner and meaner sound in live recordings (especially those that I presume was untouched by him.). For this alone I'd also recommend this set. OK it does cost an arm and a leg, but I think it's a collector's item that's well worth having.

    One interesting point you made about No. 7 is that it gets better and better. I also feel the first movement is a bit underwhelming to begin with (relative to the rest of course). On the other hand, his other live No. 7 made in 1978 (on the Palexa label), feels more engaging right from the beginning (Palexa's notes describe it as a towering presence like the howl of a beast. Take that with a grain of salt...). It's also worth investigating if not already done so.

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    Senior Member Kiki's Avatar
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    Didn't know Tamás Vásáry the conductor recorded Beethoven! Think I have only one disc of him conducting but I like it very much (it's a Martinů disc). How bad is the brass/timpani sound record in the early symphonies, still audible or almost gone missing? Overall, does it sound like a smaller orchestra being used? Would you say it's closer to old-school or HIP?

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    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Merl View Post
    Although I've not gone into timing comparisons with other Karajan cycles yet, DavidA, I'll guess that there's very little difference between this one and the 77 studio set, once you take out the audience applause, at the the end of every symphony.
    Interesting to compare Karajan's studio with his (few) live recordings. I have a live Don Giovanni which might be from a different conductor to his studio version. So much for those who say he conducted everything the same. I have noticed a huge difference at times.

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    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kiki View Post
    Glad you like Karajan's 77 Live cycle, and you're probably more enthusiastic about it than I am! In general while I like the drive and the excitement, I can barely sense the revolutionary nature of the music. I do like his leaner and meaner sound in live recordings (especially those that I presume was untouched by him.). For this alone I'd also recommend this set. OK it does cost an arm and a leg, but I think it's a collector's item that's well worth having.

    One interesting point you made about No. 7 is that it gets better and better. I also feel the first movement is a bit underwhelming to begin with (relative to the rest of course). On the other hand, his other live No. 7 made in 1978 (on the Palexa label), feels more engaging right from the beginning (Palexa's notes describe it as a towering presence like the howl of a beast. Take that with a grain of salt...). It's also worth investigating if not already done so.
    Yes not just an arm and a leg but a bit more as well. I will not be investing.

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/ベートーヴェン-Bee...ven+live+japan
    Last edited by DavidA; Feb-12-2019 at 10:38.

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    Senior Member Brahmsianhorn's Avatar
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    It’s funny hearing people talk about performances of Beethoven’s music not being “revolutionary.” His music was revolutionary compared to what was composed before. The complexity, the stresses, the power, the harmonic language. Now we are well used to it, and so we want performances of Beethoven that sound revolutionary as compared to the performances we are used to hearing. In essence we are turning Beethoven’s music against itself!

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    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kiki View Post
    Didn't know Tamás Vásáry the conductor recorded Beethoven! Think I have only one disc of him conducting but I like it very much (it's a Martinů disc). How bad is the brass/timpani sound record in the early symphonies, still audible or almost gone missing? Overall, does it sound like a smaller orchestra being used? Would you say it's closer to old-school or HIP?

    # Major Edit:
    In the Vasary cycle I mistakenly stated that the "speeds are fairly brisk" but it should have said "speeds are moderate" but it was a while back and I'd put the wrong note under the cycle (I handwrite these reviews first) - that was the note under the Nagano cycle. However, all other comments are still correct. As far as the timpani is concerned it's highly variable throughout and at times sounds too bassy and distant (probably the product of live recordings). It sounds fine in 7-9 but is variable elsewhere (especially in the 3rd and 5th). Same problem with the brass in certain movements (although it sounds great in the finale of the 5th). Otherwise the cycle is recorded pretty well. Style wise Vasary is very much in the Blomstedt / Dresden mould but the Budapest forces ain't the Dresden Staatskapelle but play really well. I particularly like how Vasary plays the intro to the 4th very slowly and deliberately before the 'Big tune' comes in and he hits the forward momentum button. That set really surprised me. Much better than I had imagined. As for Karajan, as I said, it's a really interesting cycle as although it's Karajan it sounds very different without Karajan's balances so there's more prominence to brass and woodwinds in parts than you're used to with standard HvK cycles. Also goes to show he could cut it live. I'd like to hear that set remastered as well as the Vasary one. And yes I agree about the 7th. The first movement is not one of HVK's best (he usually nails it) but from there on its as if he's on a mission to improve. I've always felt the same about Haitink's LSO live 9th....another performance that just keeps improving as it goes on, ending in a superb final movement.
    Last edited by Merl; Feb-12-2019 at 17:45.

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    Senior Member Kiki's Avatar
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    Thanks Merl for the elaboration. That puts things in perspective for me. I'll probably investigate Nagano's and Vásáry's sometime in the future. Currently I'm still feeling the aftermath of Scherchen and Weingartner (which is partly your fault! ).

    Talking about Haitink, in fact I quite like his LSO Live #9. Moderate and unexaggerated, expressive but not on-your-face. That said, I do love his timpani.
    Last edited by Kiki; Feb-13-2019 at 12:17.

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