Wiener Philharmoniker; Christian Thielemann, conductor
Leonore Overture No. 3; Symphony No. 7
San Francisco Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
One of the curmudgeonly reviewer’s cudgels, frequently wielded at recent recordings of repertory standards, is the lead off line “Do we need another recording of ____?”
Sets of Beethoven symphonies frequently get thwacked with this one. After all, any conductor with the temerity to record a Beethoven symphony when so many sets are already available is bound to be compared to any number of luminaries who’ve recorded the “canonical 9″ and already have fans of their work lined up around the block. But ill-tempered critics should take note of two new recordings of Beethoven – one a complete set and another a single disc offering. Both suggest that, with the right orchestra and an inspired conductor at the helm, even the most well known pieces can accommodate new renderings with fresh insights.
Of course, recording Beethoven with the Vienna Philharmonic may, at first blush, seem like the musical equivalent of taking a thoroughbred out for a canter. The greatest challenge may be surmounting potentially ingrained habits inculcated in performers who have played these pieces hundreds of times already in a solidified, traditional manner. Christian Thielemann appears to have little interest in provocative interpretive choices. Thus his approach is no doubt a sympathetic one for Vienna’s musicians. That said, there are plenty of nuanced choices that will cause listeners to hear passages afresh. Indeed, Thielemann opts for a very detailed rendering of the scores in performances that are finely shaded dynamically and include myriad small tempo shifts that make the symphonies seem supple, vibrant, and still capable of surprises. Throughout, the Vienna Phil is a responsive partner in these efforts. It certainly doesn’t hut that the recordings sound excellent and are packaged in a compact yet handsome boxed set. For those interested in an educational component, the set also includes a “Making Beethoven” documentary on DVD.
While Leonore Overture No. 3 is hardly one of Beethoven’s best pieces, the San Francisco Symphony, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas in this live recording, provide it with a slow boil intensity that eventually gives way to tempestuous tutti. With this kind of assured treatment, which makes the most of the score’s contrasts and heightens its somewhat latent dramatic potential, it’s not hard to connect the dots between this overture and the overtures one hears in early Verdi operas.
The main course here, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, is given similarly energetic treatment in a sweeping performance that contains fireworks (and explosive fortes) aplenty. However, Tilson Thomas never sacrifices detail in order to provide a convincing musical narrative. In particular, the poised and perfectly paced rendition of the symphony’s second movement is a thing to cherish. One of several recordings SFSO is releasing this year, it’s well worth seeking out.