Saturday, March 10, 2012

Recording of the Week

Do you really need another set of the Beethoven symphonies? I was skeptical too, I admit, but if it's this recent release of the live recordings made by the Vienna Philharmonic under Christian Thielemann from 2008 through 2010, you might just. The recordings have been released already in DVD and Blu-Ray formats in 2011, but Sony has put together this single set now for those not inclined towards high end home theater systems.

Poor Beethoven. You'd think the most famous name in music had fallen upon the hardest of times. His music apparently now requires entire months of radio programming to convince people to appreciate it. Concert programmers as recently as last week were still trying to explain why his music even matters. How things got this bad for the old man are unclear. But listening to a recording as good as the Vienna Philharmonic's recent symphony cycle under Christian Thielemmann reinforces how inane this kind of marketing blather is. These performances do all the explaining anyone could need.

These are big-boned Romantic performances that make the most of the Vienna players' polished, exacting sound. It's almost as if Harnoncourt never happened. But this sort of fleshy Beethoven, popular half a century ago never really went away on world stages, and Thielemann taps into this with interpretations that are bright sounding, and often muscular. There is nothing retro about this work, however, and the symphonies sound as fresh and lively as ever. Thielemann has a strong sense of dynamics and pushes tempi in both directions but never to the point of losing the bigger picture.

And if you are looking for an argument for why buying physical recordings still matter, this is it. A digital download may be infinitely more portable, but it isn't as much fun to peruse as this white, cloth-bound set with individual paper sleeves for the discs. It's a lovely set and includes a bonus DVD with interviews and excerpts from the DVD releases as well. Help yourself. You need an Easter gift.

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