Christian Thielemann has a bit of a reputation as an eccentric. Some of these eccentricities found their way into performances in his early years. DGG and the Philharmonia gave him a shot recording Schumann and Beethoven and the performances made a bit of a splash. Thielemann’s reputation has grown considerably since then (and his performances more mainstream and scrupulous). He was recently appointed Music Director of the Dresden Staatskapelle and is Musical ‘Advisor’ to the Bayreuth Festival.
The subject of this review is one volume from the new Beethoven Symphony cycle (more on the way to Audiophilia). The DVD set includes Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 and a DVD of three hour long documentaries, one for each symphony (a nice addition to the DVD). The orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic and the setting is the magnificent Musikverein. The following paragraphs will focus on performance and sound. Video (not Blu-ray — they’re on their way) is HD in what looks 720P. It’s stunning. Camera shots are bog standard with some dodgy solo framing. Yet, the director knows the scores well.
If this set is anything to judge, I’m glad the other volumes will arrive soon. All three performances are superb. They are incredibly musical, dynamic, and are infused with Thielemann’s clear direction and musical values. His core competencies includes a direct technique (young conductors — and old — can learn plenty from him), a fine ear for orchestral balance (the Vienna Phil an obvious help in this regard; his performances with lesser orchestras like the Munich Philharmonic suggest that he is a mere mortal), and interesting ideas — thinking anew rather than new ideas for their own sake.
That said, each of these tenets place this new set (so far) into the pantheon of master sets, including the 1963 Karajan (Thielemann was his assistant for a while) and the Klemperer Philharmonia stereo set. At first, I thought some of the new ideas fussy. Tempo shifts in the 5th Symphony last movement intro and repeat, and again in the slow movement of the 5th, with some woodwind solos possibly a little too languorous. After many hearings, I was wrong. What I took for fussy, was merely scrupulous. And this incredible scrutiny is taken in stride by the magnificent soloists of the Wiener Philharmoniker.
The orchestra is a perfect foil for Thielemann’s musical journeys. The players are with him all the way. I cannot single anyone out. They are all magnificent. Take some time and listen to the woodwind solos in Scene by the Brook from the Pastoral. The flawless phrasing, the exquisite instrument timbres are among the best in my memory. Tiny little changes that make huge musical differences are infused throughout. As example, listen to spectacular flutist Walter Auer and his golden Sankyo flute in the coda of the first movement of the Pastoral. The little flute solo of an F major scale flourish ends with a slight hesitation of the final high F. It is so slight, it’s almost imperceptible, but it just works. And when you get old Beethoven with new musical ideas that work, it’s magic. There are innumerable evidences of these musical gems in all three symphonies.
You can listen to the audio only, which is fine by me. The recording is equally spectacular. The Golden Hall of the Musikverein certainly glows. Visually, though, seeing the well-heeled Viennese enjoying themselves is a pleasure and watching Thielemann is, as I mentioned, an education. Either way, Beethoven lovers are in for a treat. If you think you know these seminal works, think again. Thielemann and the Vienna Phil will entertain, educate, and move you like few others. What more could you ask?
A triumph for all concerned. Looking forward to the next delivery.