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Beethoven: The Symphonies

4.5 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews

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Audio CD, March 30, 2010
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Editorial Reviews

Acclaimed since it first appeared in 1994, this 5-CD set features John Eliot Gardiner as he leads the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in ground-breaking performances.
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Product Details

  • Orchestra: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
  • Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner
  • Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Audio CD (March 30, 2010)
  • Imported ed. edition
  • Number of Discs: 5
  • Label: Archiv
  • ASIN: B0033QC0WE
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #8,307 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Audio CD
I've been a starry-eyed admirer of the more polished, better-characterised HIP versions of Beethoven symphonies for many years. I know that many listeners will continue to vilify these versions till the end of time, but I will still be a keen supporter of this paradigm shift approach. I have embraced the paradigm shift of Beethoven performers as a listener, but yet I know these recordings will always be contentious territory.

I know that historically informed anything means hurry-sick performances and hurry-up tempo choices dictated by the rush-hour culture of today's world. I know also that there is mounting concrete evidence to suggest that the first musicians who performed Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and other composers adopted slower speeds out of necessity because of ragged ensemble standards and poor internal instrumental mechanics. As such, performers who adopt such stratospheric speeds might be part of a plot to drive the world to burnout and ruin. If our forbears were alive today, I'm half expecting them to scold today's musicians for their trivial, ignoble and vacant renditions that are lacking in musical substance.

However, I wearied of the stodgy, gloopy and slushy performances of Beethoven symphonies done by many conductors of the past. So I was grateful for conductors who attempted to adhere to Beethoven's stipulated speeds. His prescribed speeds work if you consider that he wants us to feel his music in larger beat units.

Of the first few historically-sensitive versions (Goodman/Huggett, Norrington/LCP, Hogwood and Brüggen being the others) I find that Gardiner is perhaps the most robust. The performances are more full-bodied than the others that had been released up to that point.
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Format: Audio CD
Gardiner's period instrument cycle was the best of both worlds when it was released in the mid-nineties, appealing to purists and traditionalists alike. It secured better playing than Hogwood did in his fine cycle and has remained in-print unlike Bruggen's fantastic series. But most importantly, it did not grossly offended many listeners like Rodger Norrington's cycle did, with its hard hitting accents and fast tempos. Indeed, it was Beethoven for Beethoven's sake, with spirited tempos, big playing, and a true understanding of the composer's idiom. In this regard, despite the publication of the Barenreiter editions, the set still remains fresh, attractive, and "current" with much of the recent scholarship, in no small part because Gardiner worked with Del Mar in preparation of this set.

As far as complete cycles go, this still remains a favorite period set as well as a front runner as far as cycles are concerned. For one, Gardiner secures fabulous playing from his period band, with full-bodied, gutsy strings, golden-toned brass, and bright winds, especially from the typically undernourished clarinets and bassoons. Intonation is always spot-on and the overall timbre of the orchestra has that typical warmth and spice one can only find from period instruments. Secondly, Gardiner is across-the-board a very fine interpreter indeed. He is excellent in all the sonata-form movements, judging and balancing climaxes wonderfully, while finding the humor throughout, especially in Beethoven's delicious scherzo movements. But he also knows when to pull back and let lyrical passages be just that lyrical, that lack of which was the major shortcoming in Norrington's cycle.

A great example would be Gardiner's absolutely thrilling Seventh, one of the truly great performances of this work.
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Format: Audio CD
There is and can be no "reference version" of Beethoven's symphonies. A range of interpretive approaches is possible, rather narrow in fact but made seemingly broad by our perception of the importance of this music. So we can choose from quasi-19th century Romantic approaches such as those of Jochum or Cluytens, or from still-massive but more precise and even "steely" versions such as Karajan's, or from lighter fleet-footed performances on period instruments, or at least in period style, that have become quite popular in recent years - for instance Zinman, Norrington, and Harnoncourt. To my ears, Gardiner's cycle is the finest among the last group.

The reasons? I can add little to what has already been said, but would emphasize: (1) Fleet the music may be, but it is projected with an incredible passion and force. (2) This seems due not only to Gardiner's music conceptions but to the faultless, even brilliant, execution by the ORR. (3) The sound is excellent with a very substantial (but not tubby) low end, something that seems weak in certain other "period" versions. (4) In some places, Gardiner's approach makes quite a difference in how the music is heard. This can be welcome in pieces as familiar, or even overly-familiar, as these.

The downside: As played here, this is music that grabs you by the throat and slams you up against the wall. The intensity of the experience is truly impressive, but do we really want this sort of experience as a steady diet? Well, that's one reason why there can't be a true "reference version," and why Beethoven enthusiasts usually own several sets of symphonies. But for what it does and what it is, it's difficult to see this fine set being surpassed any time soon.
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