Fans of box sets will certainly treasure this splendid collection, which unites all of Nikolaus Harnoncourt's Beethoven recordings with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. It is absolutely stunning, not only with regards to sound, but also with the exceptional performances given by the orchestra, vocal soloists in the "Missa Solemnis" and violinist Gidon Kremer in the violin concerto. The "Creatures of Promethus" performance is the best I have heard. As for the entire symphony cycle, this is the Beethoven to acquire if you're looking for one set. Harnoncourt leads the COE in brisk, exciting interpretations of the symphonies that combine the best of period instrument practice and contemporary performance. Other acclaimed cycles, most notably those from Abbado, Barenboim, Gardiner and Zinman, have been issued since Harnoncourt's was released, yet his remains first choice.
These performances of the Symphonies of Beethoven, the Vioin Concerto, Overtures, The Creatures of Prometheus and the Missa Solemnis should be on the shelf of every serious music lover. Harnoncourt's radically different approach to these familiar works of Beethoven will cause some to cringe and cause others to leap from their seats in absolute joy. Harnoncourt and the COE have thrown all long held performance traditions out of the window and the result is refreshing and, at times, downright alarming. The textures are lean, crisp and biting. The tempos almost never drag, the listener is constantly propelled forward by these unique and absolutely spell-binding performances. And Teldec has captured them in magnificent digital sound. After listening to these performances, one can understand why Beethoven was considered such a revolutionary. Go ahead and purchase these recordings. You will never hear a more gripping account of these works anywhere else. Bravo Harnoncourt! Bravo Chamber Orchestra of Europe! Bravo Beethoven!
Although it runs $100 for 10 CDs, this set qualifies as a bargain. Harnoncourt presents an impressive rethink of Beethoven's symphonies, as well as sterling versions of the violin concerto, various ovetures, the Missa Solemnis and Creatures of Prometheus. All of this is handsomely packaged as a box set, complete with a long and detailed booklet explaining Harnoncourt's approach. Perhaps the most unusual feature of the set it that is contains a picture of Harnoncourt smiling! Prior to purchasing this set, in every picture I had ever seen of the man he was wearing a VSS (Very Serious Scowl) that seemed both pretentious and off-putting. Anyway, the music...I have reviewed the 9th symphony seperately and for me it represents the highlight of both the symphonic cycle as well as the set...just a flat-out great performance. Other standouts in the symphonies are the 8th (best version I have heard), 4th, 6th and 1st. The 6th is controversially slow, although the slower this symphony is the better I like it, and therefore it works for me. The 5th will not make you forget Kleiber (what would?), but it is strong version nonetheless. 3 and 7 will probably divide listeners...the heroic element is 3 is downplayed and the dance element in 7 is trimmed by lessening the rythmic drive...neither would be a first choice, but both are interesting alternative versions. Perhaps the greatest virtue of the set is the consistency of the interpretation and execution. There is no weak link here...no one or two symphonies that are obviously below par. As to the rest of the set, well, things just get better. The violin concerto (with Gidon Kremer) is absolutely outstanding...it may be the best version in recent memory. Both Kremer and Harnoncourt catch fire early and sustain an almost wild abandon throughout. As for the Missa Solemnis and Creatures of Prometheus, both are excellent versions that can stand with any. To top everything off, all the major overtures and romances are represented with very nice performances. For me, this set represents as good an integral set of Beethoven's symphonic output as one is likely to find. Harnoncourt is interesting, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is outstanding, as are Kremer, the Chorus and the various vocalists. Teldec's recording is absolutely first rate. I still pull out the Kleiber, Klemperer and Furtwangler, but more and more I find myself reaching for the Harnoncourt above all others. And, the guy has a great smile!