This is a fine set of the Beethoven symphonies by one of the best, and more interesting, conductors of the second half of the 20th century.
Maag apprenticed to Furtwangler, who taught him the importance of an intuitive approach to music and supported Maag's natural romantic tendencies, and he also apprenticed to Ernest Ansermet, who had a more rationalist approach. As a result, Maag valued a spontaneous approach to music, and he absorbed and polished Furtwangler's capacity to mould phrases and long-term musical lines with adjustments to dynamics (in particular) and tempo (with Maag, less so). But Maag coupled this with a rationalist's clarity of texture and line as well as more French orchestral balances (forward brass and winds in particular).
Maag waited until late in life to record the Beethoven cycle. In a mid-1990's interview in Italy, Maag said of these recordings, "I was always a little bit afraid because probably I had to live in the shadow of Furtwängler and I had the feeling that I would never be able to do and to record Beethoven in a such great way. However slowly I gained the courage and I faced the symphonies . . . If Furtwängler could listen to these recordings I hope he could find well exposed his teaching but I am sure he would tell me that these interpretations are more rational than he could expect, even if the intuition enjoys for me a special regard. This is probably the heritage of my collaboration with Ernest Ansermet, who always supported a rational background in music making . . . Ansermet gave to my romantic soul the French drops of reason and maybe the decision to record the symphonies of Beethoven with a chamber orchestra is linked with this experience. A chamber orchestra doesn't allow you to hide yourself but gives the opportunity to bring into the foreground the infinite details of the score." While this set features clear and open textures, with generally forward brass and woodwinds, Maag is careful to adjust the dynamics to bring out important details and maintain the melodic lines. Amazon's reviewer Leslie Gerber said that the winds overwhelm the strings; I disagree. I think these are the conductor's deliberate choices.
Three of the symphonies were recorded live: the 5th, 6th and 9th. And, not surprisingly, those three are the highlights of the set. The Pastoral has strong similarities to Furtwangler's leisurely approach but is very much on its own terms and very convincing. The Fifth is heroic and inspiring, and the 9th is beautiful. Other highlights include the Eroica, especially the Funeral March, which is forceful and dramatic with a wider range of emotion than usual; an energetic Seventh which truly does sound like a force of nature more than a symphony; and sweet Second with a meltingly beautiful slow movement. The Fourth is probably my favorite version of this symphony by anyone. Maag creates a joyous, light-footed, high-spirited performance which brings this lovely piece to light, and the last movement in particular puts every other interpretation I've heard in the shade.
Now, to the orchestra and the sound: this is truly a small chamber orchestra, with a regular complement of about 35 players (Chamber Orchestra of Europe has 50) and only 8 each in the first and second violins. Extra strings gives a polish and depth of sound, and that the Orchestra of Padua and Veneto definitely lacks. The wind and brass playing is almost uniformly excellent, although the first flute frequently gets lost in the tuttis. The string playing is fine and very Italian, with a bit wider vibrato than I'm used to. Considering that all of these performances were apparently done in one take, whether live or not, the orchestra acquits itself marvelously, with very few errors and no obvious flubs, and follows Maag's direction to a "t". That said, Maag's combination of small-scale orchestra with more romantic interpretations can be disconcerting. When I expected to hear that massive drama which comes from 100 musicians, I get the sharper, more punchy sound of the smaller ensemble. You have to be willing to forego the bigger, more sonorous string sound of the large orchestra to really love these recordings.
The recordings were made in four different locations: the 1st, 3rd, 7th and 8th in the Modigliani Auditorium, the 2nd and 4th in the Longio in Venice, the 5th and 6th in the Pollini Auditorium, and the 9th at the St. Antony Basilica. The recordings in the Pollini and the Basilica have the best acoustics for this orchestra, with a nice balance of clarity and tasteful reverb. The worst is the Modigliani, which has more reverberation and makes the orchestra sound both larger and rougher-sounding than it is. Arts' recording is clean and decent, but I just get this feeling that they wanted to make the orchestra sound like it had 70 players instead of 35.
I've yet to find a complete Beethoven set that didn't have its drawbacks. For this set, the compromises are in the orchestral quality (the lack of polish and depth of string sound noted above) and auditorium acoustics (in the 1st, 3rd, 7th and 8th). Interpretively, this set, for me, stands head and shoulders above many of those lauded by amazon customers, including those of Maag's contemporaries von Karajan and Bohm. Maag was a deeply spiritual person, a student of theology and philosophy who deep-sixed his career at its zenith by taking a two-year retreat in a Buddhist monastery because he felt he was becoming too much of a businessman and too little a musician. He says he learned concentration and meditation which influenced his musicianship at a very deep level. His care and love shine through, and the combination of Germanic and French influences, together with Maag's unique insights and skills in phrasing and dynamics and his sure sense of tempi and balance, make this a set worth anyone's time.
(Quotations from Maag's interview are taken from the Orchestra di Padova e Veneto's website.)