I received the three DVDs of Michael Gielen conducting all nine Beethoven symphonies on the same day. Consequently I've been having a Beethoven Fest all my own. I love DVDs of orchestral concerts; it's more like attending a real concert than when one simply listens to a CD. And this series is fortunate to have extremely crisp visuals as well as lifelike sound. I've admired Gielen as conductor--he's also a composer of avant garde music--ever since he took over as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony back in the 1980s. I've particularly admired his ability to shake the dust of time and tradition off old scores. He certainly does that here. He has, for many years, championed playing the Beethoven symphonies at the composer's own metronome markings, something that others have more recently come to do; but back when he was starting to do this Beethoven's metronome markings were considered erroneous presumably due to his deafness or because perhaps he had a faulty metronome. Gielen has shown that both those reasons are poppycock. But he's no speed demon as some HIP conductors are. And he uses modern instruments, thank goodness, in these performances. Please see my review of the first three symphonies for more.
This DVD contains the Fourth, that 'slender Greek maiden' in Schumann's words, followed by the titanic Fifth and the bucolic Sixth, the 'Pastoral.' All three were recorded in the Freiburg Konzerthaus (Freiburg is one of two cities for which this SWR Sinfonieorchester is the local symphony; their other hometown is Baden-Baden). The Fourth was recorded in January 2000, the Fifth and Sixth in December 1997. There were some real personnel changes in the orchestra between those dates--the flutes, timpanist, and several of the string players are different in the later DVD--and perhaps more important, the timps in 2000 are played with wooden sticks, in 1997 with soft sticks. Further, in 1997 the trumpets are playing Austro-German rotary valve instruments, but by 2000 they are playing American style piston trumpets.
The performance of the Fourth opens with a long-shot of the audience which, sadly, seems to fill only about half the seats. But later we see an almost full hall, which leads me to suspect that this 'live' performance DVD actually uses material from two different concerts. Fine by me, but a little confusing at first. The tempi in the Fourth are rather fast, as they are in all of Gielen's performances so far in the series, but they are spirited and still manage to convey the gentleness of this lovely score. The finale, in particular, has a lot of pizazz. My hat is off to the very fine principal bassoonist who plays that horrendously fast lick in the last movement with no sense of strain at all.
The Fifth is given a titanic performance. The first movement in particularly is spectacular. Fast, yes, but there is no sense of hurry, nor of difficulty in execution. One thing I wish had been edited differently is the very opening shot of this movement. Students of conducting are always curious about how a conductor manages to cue the tempo of that opening motto, 'fate knocking on the door' in Beethoven's words. [I recall Erich Leinsdorf, talking to young conductors, spending almost a full hour on this subject.] Well, we get a lovely shot of the contrabasses when the movement starts, so I guess we'll never know Gielen's secret, except that he manages to get the symphony off start that would make a NASCAR driver proud. That aside, this is a marvelously alive performance, one that I had to go back and watch again immediately after my first time through. I've always felt that the coda of the last movement is strung out a little bit too long; not here. Gielen gets on with it and in so doing brings the symphony to a really exciting end.
The Pastoral Symphony is also faster than usual, and here, for once, I have a few doubts about it. The first movement, 'Awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the country,' sounds more like 'Caffeine kicking in.' From then on, though, I cannot argue with Gielen's tempi. 'Scene by the Brook' is extraordinarily lovely (and actually not very fast, as these things go). One can almost hear the flies buzzing in the summer sunlight. 'Merry Gathering of the Country Folk' is appropriately rustic and merry, but there are also some sforzati that liven things up a bit. Is there a squabble brewing among some of the peasants? Possibly, but the genial tone of the gathering prevails. 'Thunderstorm' is particularly effective--no surprise here, Gielen is very good at conveying pictorial detail. The thunder and lightning are actually pretty scary! The finale begins with a lovely shepherd's song sung by clarinet and horn followed by 'Thankful Feelings After the Storm' which are almost reverent in the depth of feeling. This is a wonderful Sixth!
I have not seen the recently issued DVDs of Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in all of Beethoven's symphonies. I can only imagine they are marvelous. But don't think that because Gielen and his orchestra are less well-known that this series (at least up through No. 6--I haven't viewed 7-9 yet) is easily dismissed. And don't forget that they are selling for only about 2/3 the price of the Abbado set.