Outstanding Beethoven Choice, Especially Among Period Instru
Dan Fee | Berkeley, CA USA | 09/02/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This complete set of the Beethoven symphonies enters a distinguished and competitive field of consideration. Not only have quite a few conductors and bands already had their say; but often long-lived outings by famous legacy and famous living conductors hold pride of place in people's collections.
The options include three different domains that have emerged since the early music movement began to change our ears about everything.
What started as period instruments versus modern, now further differentiates into modern band performances that have been influenced by period performance. How to sort?
Among the period instrument offerings, we have the Hanover Band under Roy Goodman, the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantic under John Eliot Gardiner, the London Classical Players under Sir Roger Norrington, the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood, and this one, with the Orchestra of the 18th Century under Frans Bruggen.
The Gardiner set is widely considered the front runner of period instrument band versions for various reasons. Some listeners feel otherwise.
Among the modern instrument sets, we have the likes of All the Beethoven led by Toscanini, Furtwangler, Bruno Walter, George Szell, Otto Klemperer, Georg Solti, Gunter Wand, Kurt Sanderling, Janos Ferencsik, Herbert Blomstedt, Leonard Bernstein (NYP & VPO), Ricardo Muti, Kurt Masur, Andre Cluytens, Pierre Monteux, Sir Colin Davis, Sir Simon Rattle, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Michael Tilson Thomas, Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink, Sir Charles Mackerras, Erich Leinsdorf, Antal Dorati, Walter Weller, Eugen Jochum, Richard Hickox, Lorin Maazel, Rudolf Kempe, Karl Bohm, Herbert von Karajan, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Rene Leibowitz, Carlo Maria Giulini - with the bands ranging across most of the planet's great and aspiring ensembles.
One can even go back to old 78 rpm transfers now, in surprisingly listenable sound at times - and hear the past via legacy figures like Felix Weingartner.
As if choosing between these two expanded options were not enough, we also have that third stream of performances. Various modern instrument bands have been influenced by this or that important aspect of performance as it shifted when period instrument playing began to be more widely heard. This interesting group must at least include - Abbado leading the BPO, Jaap van Sweden leading the Hague Residentie, Nikolaus Harnoncourt leading the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Bela Drahos leading the smallish Esterhazy Sinfonia, and David Zinman leading the Tonhalle Zurich. (Zinman with the Tonhalle - at budget price no less - is probably the hands down leader in this pack, though you may beg to differ. In any case, you must get his Missa Solemnis, and his ongoing Beethoven concerto series now being released.)
So many of these performances have something to recommend them that playing best of games falls short of really listening. So what about listening to this set by Frans Bruggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth?
I was getting a coffee carrier order for my office a few years ago when I caught one of the Beethoven overtures being played on the local radio station. Fortunately, the overture wasn't so long that I missed hearing about the players. Thus, I was hooked by ear first, and later filled in the recording information details when the announcer broke in later. So what immediately caught my ear?
Vitality. Snapped Beethoven rhythms with just the right oomph in sforzandos. (Eugen Jochum supposedly said, The sforzando is the secret to good Beethoven.) Upbeat tempos - that don't rush or speed past instrumental colors or preclude lyrical beauty or mangle narrative point and phrasing.
The recorded balance available in this set is marvelous. It neatly lets its shining musical angels dance on the head of the engineer's pins. Strings are gut string sounding, but never for one moment lose presence or articulation. Just when you expect woodwinds or brass to break through and obscure the strings, as happens in most original instrument performances at least in passing - those strings will reappear - and not just for show or a reminder that they are still there, but for sheer musical message. The longer I listened, the more expertly I heard how the shifting balances between and among the period instrument departments of this band were always for musical message reasons, not just a helpless consequence of the physics of period instruments. This band is just that good.
It probably is easy to mistake this consistent balance in these musical proceedings for something too casual, too easy to play along with, too genial. This balance does capture and depend on an unfailing sense of deep classical poise. But the fact is, something mysterious and nourishing to ear and mind and heart comes through, more fully in these outings than in so many others. There is enough flash, and drama, and contrast that one hardly forgets that Beethoven is the composer. Don't forget homespun, rough wit. And plenty of nature walks out of doors. But this Beethoven fellow has a big, big, big heart, too. And although it doesn't overly call attention to itself on first hearing, over the long run of listening, these performances express one of the west's greatest musical minds, reaching, reaching, reaching - and grasping into the intelligent beyond.
So the mysterious, ineffable Beethoven is here, too. You know, that fellow who could sing an ode to humanity in his final symphony. This Ninth Symphony has the sheer Bel Canto heritage that makes Gardiner so irresistible and revelatory, along with hot brick ovens full of hearty, brown bread inner strength. There is plenty of fizz, fire, pizzaz, and zap - but you won't get a sugar crash later. The energy has gotten way down inside you and makes you feel still human for just another day. The choral and solo singing is one with the basic ethos. Instead of human voices having to try to sound instrumental, the period players get a chance to sound more like embodied, singing creatures. This reverse is a miracle that happily startles in its unobtrusive way, and wears very well over the long run of listening to this set."
Pleasant, yet not the best
DavidRoss | 06/13/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Frans Brueggen's period-instrument recording of this immortal cycle is extremely enlightening. For those who are already quite familiar with Beethoven's breathtaking symphonies (and a couple of overtures), this box set can help you discover more to them (as if there wasn't already enough depth). The Orchestra of the 18th Century provides a more Mozartean approach to these works, and for listeners who prefer Beethoven's Classicism to his Romanticism, these discs relieve you of the highly modern interpretations by other orchestras.
Overall, I award this four out of five stars. It is not a miraculous recording, but the fact that the material is so well-known increases the value for me. (By the way, I especially enjoyed the performance of the Ninth.)"
The best period instrument cycle...no, the best cycle, perio
DavidRoss | Woodland, CA United States | 09/08/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Along with Sibelius and Mahler, Beethoven is my favorite symphonist. I own more than a dozen complete cycles, ranging from the Big Band Beethoven of Böhm, Blomstedt, and Barenboim, to the latest period instrument HIPsters, such as Anima Eterna conducted by Jos van Immerseel. I also own several individual symphony pressings and CDs. This set by Brüggen and The Orchestra of the 18th Century gets more play than any of them. The lively tempos, sprung rhythms, dynamic contrasts, orchestral balances, delightfully scrunchy period instrument sonorities (celebrated and not suppressed as in some better known period instrument recordings), and most of all its sheer joie de vivre set this cycle head and shoulders above every other that I've heard (including Hogwood, Norrington, Gardiner, Weil, and even the splendid new set mentioned above by van Immerseel). Per contemporary accounts of Beethoven's own conducting style, Brüggen's approach comes closest to Beethoven's own passionate style of expression (in my opinion), and it is a pity that this set--one of the first HIP cycles recorded--is not better known and appreciated. Try it. Let your ears, your heart, and your soul be seduced by its raucous beauty, and you'll never hear Beethoven the same again!