Discovering Beethoven

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1, 2 & 3; Coriolan Overture, Op. 62; Egmont Overture, Op. 84; plus documentaries on each Symphony
PERFORMER: Vienna Philharmonic/Christian Thielemann; Joachim Kaiser


The main features of this set, apart from the resplendent sound and picture, are the idiosyncratic conducting of Christian Thielemann and the eight hours of discussion of the symphonies, between him and Joachim Kaiser. Kaiser is the doyen of German music and theatre critics, author of many books, and a late representative of the highly cultivated European man of letters, an almost extinct breed. His comments on Thielemann’s conducting are based on his immense experience. Thielemann is 30 years younger, but claims that his conducting is rooted in the great tradition of Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch etc, though his tempos are usually brisker than theirs, especially in first movements.  

Thielemann and Kaiser discuss the symphonies non-technically, with musical examples taken from the actual performances and from rehearsals, and with comparative excerpts from Karajan, Bernstein, Paavo Järvi, and some of the older conductors. It seems odd that about the same time – just under an hour – is devoted to discussing each symphony, when clearly some need lengthier treatment than others. I find Kaiser interesting and fresh, while Thielemann is so eager to demonstrate his originality here that
he often talks pretentious nonsense.


The performances, the Vienna Philharmonic on top form, can’t help sounding wonderful, note for note or chord by chord. But Thielemann’s synthetic approach – dandyish Carlos Kleiber-style posing, loose-limbed ecstatic Furtwänglerisms – fail to produce coherent results. Symphonies Nos 1, 2 and 7 are mainly successful. The Eroica is a disaster, with so slow a tempo for the start of the development of the first movement that stasis seems imminent. Nor could I find much to warm to in the interpretation of the symphonies I haven’t mentioned. So, oddly, it is the discussions that are most enjoyable elements in this ambitious set. Michael Tanner