I received all three DVDs of the Gielen traversal of the nine Beethoven symphonies at the same time and have already reviewed those that contain the first six symphonies. This completes the set. The orchestra is the same in all, the SWR-Sinfonieorchester (Baden-Baden und Freiburg)--although, in fact, as the series was recorded over a period of three years (1998-2000) some major changes in orchestra personnel are quite apparent. And by 2000 the trumpet players had traded in their Austro-German rotary-valve instruments for the upright piston trumpets more commonly seen in the U.S., Britain and France. And I believe I also notice a falling off of quality of playing by 2000, but perhaps that's a matter of occasion, recording or other factors.
The Seventh is an unexceptionable performance, the least noticeably unusual of the whole set, although it starts rather more slowly than most interpretations. Indeed, the first two movements feel a bit soft-centered, a bit gentle (not inappropriate in the second, I'd add), but then the third and fourth movement really get cracking. One notices that the timpanist, between movement two and three, has traded soft mallets for hard ones and perhaps that accounts to some degree for the seeming rhythmic tightening and the distinct infusion of excitement in the last two movements.
The Eighth, in my mind one of the least intimidating and certainly the wittiest of the Nine, is given a rather hard and unforgiving first movement. I was really rather startled by this and can't quite see the need for it. But the Allegretto scherzando second movement is miles more genial and things feel 'right' again. The rest of the symphony maintains that attitude, and there is wit to be heard as I believe Beethoven intended. I can't quite figure out what was going on in that first movement, but it certainly put me off. In fairness, I must conclude by saying that the finale is one of the best performances of it I've ever heard; wit combines with almost late-Beethoven features that I'd never quite noticed before. Nice touch.
The first movement of the Ninth is rather faceless, somehow; there is not as much drama as one expects. The Scherzo second movement sounds almost as if it had come out of the Sixth, a kind of peasant quality. Not necessarily bad, but a little unusual. The Adagio third movement is lovely. Strings shine here. The Finale is begun at, for me, a startling tempo. I know Gielen is one of those who believes we should take Beethoven's metronome markings literally, but his tempo is so fast that the basses and celli have to scramble to keep up, and although they snarl through it, it is unsettling. From there on we are in for an exciting and well-played and -sung finale. The soloists are unknown to me, but they are excellent, and particularly the bass, Hanno Müller-Brachmann, who looks to be very young, is destined for bigger things. He has a well-focused voice with plenty of heft and he manages the opening 'O Freunde, nicht diese Töne' with ringing tones; he certainly gets our attention for the Schiller verses to come. The choir, the Rundfunk Chor Berlin, is superb.
Overall, this whole series of performances (as well as their videography and sound) is excellent, but I feel there are some weaknesses in this final instalment and I can't give it five stars as I did the earlier DVDs. I have admired Gielen for years and this has confirmed my feeling that he is an underrated conductor. I'm just sorry there was a slight let-down in this last instalment.
One last thought: I am more and more convinced that the wave of the future for home enjoyment of classical music is via the DVD. Seeing as well as hearing a performance is definitely more satisfying. And one certainly gets more value for the money; imagine, three symphonies, a total of 141 minutes, with both sound and music, for the price of one CD!