Georg Solti and the Vienna Phiharmoic- how can one go wrong? To begin with, I will admit a bit of favoritism: I enjoy the high energy and fast tempos of Herbert von Karajan's cycle of Beethoven's symphonies. Solti's renditions pose a striking contrast to the clean and glossy sound of those recordings. Solti gives a raw, charged atmosphere to these symphonies, putting a bit of himself into the overall sound. Whereas Karajan preferred to take a cool approach to the music, Solti charges straight in, never hesitating or apologizing for taking interpretation to the extreme.
Solti's style works best in the third symphony. This was the first of Beethoven's symphonies to really stray from the Classical style and declare itself a truly Romantic composition. Solti's energy, along with the unrefined sound of the recording work perfectly in this "crossover" piece. The first movement is both Classical and Romantic in its sound, toeing the line perfectly. The second movement presents an unpretentious depth of feeling, exuding a mood of true mourning. The second half of the symphony allows Solti to move from the endless vitality of the third movement to blaring optimism of the fourth.
The fifth symphony is probably Solti's weakest showing in the set. The first movement, with its all-too familiar "fate knocking" motif is perfectly executed, but the second movement lacks sustenance. I prefer Karajan's sweeping, accelerated rendition (which brings the fifth concerto to mind). I think Solti tries to hang on to the moment too long, allowing it to actually elude him. The third and fourth movements are tolerable, but still lack the high energy or clean sound necessary to conclude the elements of the symphony.
The seventh symphony is perfection, although with a raw sound, exposing the listener to the nuts and bolts of Beethoven's fire. The tempos are perfectly executed in the first movement, ranging from slow indecision to rollicking energy. The second movement sounds almost medieval in its approach. The bitterly lethargic tempo, the unrefined sound, all contribute to a vast feeling of inescapable sorrow. Solti is marvellous with the third movement, seeming to constantly speed the orchestra. Solti presents the fourth in a raucous, breathtaking rampage.
Solti's energetic character along with the more intimate sound of the recrodings provides a balanced look at pieces that belong both in the Classical AND Romantic periods. The sound is not of the gargantuan orchestras of the later Romantic or modern period, but Solti's style as a showman gives the works fresh vitality and raw energy that pierce right to the heart of Beethoven's works.