Symphonies One and Two are cases in point. Both are jam-packed with crisp, fleet articulation and pungent accents. In similar fashion, the Third symphony's radical classicism hits home in a lean, driving performance redolent of the like-minded Kleiber-Concertgebouw and digital Karajan-Berlin recordings of the Eroica. Clarity, however, is often sacrificed for speed in the Fourth. If Abbado's new Fifth lacks the elemental thrust and surging bass line distinguishing Carlos Kleiber's and Gunter Wand's powerful readings, one hears important lines that often get lost in the mix, such as the cellos' countermelody underneath the finale's second theme.
The remaining symphonies boast reams of prodigious, effortless orchestral execution, but they often fall short in dynamic thrust, dramatic momentum, and even humor when appropriate. The finale of the Seventh, for instance, goes too fast for the swirling music to really take shape, and ditto for the wacky last movement of the Eighth. Abaddo's excellent live Berlin Ninth on Sony is hardly superseded by the present lightweight, ill-balanced traversal, although Thomas Quasthoff's riveting declamation in the finale is gorgeous and meaningful. DG's excellent packaging includes an interview with the conductor and informative annotations. All told, an uneven cycle as a whole, but its finest moments easily stand among the best modern Beethoven symphony recordings. --Jed Distler