Beethoven In The Wrong Century

Beethoven. Everyone plays Beethoven, as everyone should. He’s not only one of the greats, arguably the greatest, but his music is endlessly appealing and satisfying, and he’s accepted easily by the public as a composer of great art music that is emotional and intellectually stimulating without any technical or historical knowledge of classical music. He is the universal composer.

Have you ever talked about classical music with strangers in bars? I have. I vividly remember one such conversation in the Alibi Club on Dekalb Avenue in Brooklyn, sometime in the late 1980s. Just one of the chats with the guy on the adjacent bar stool, someone in the neighborhood, about jazz and rock, but also about Beethoven, how you had to have a set of the Beethoven Symphonies, that he is the song of the soul.

So I can be excused, I hope, for having fifteen complete Beethoven symphony cycles, sixteen if you count the partial set of live recordings led by Wilhelm Furtwangler during World War II, which is an essential component of any music library. They are all different, all with something to say, all — including ones that I don’t love but find fascinating, like John Elliot Gardiner’s set — valuable. It’s certainly more than enough, though, and so when new symphony cycles are issued, they have to be highly compelling to draw my attention.

My attention was drawn, recently, to the new symphony cycle from conductor Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Symphony, six live discs and one DVD in a nice package from Sony. This did not come to me as a promo, I spent a a good portion of a limited budget on it, following a good amount of critical acclaim. And now I am here to warn you away from making the same mistake.

It’s not that this is a bad set, it’s just not notably good by any measure. The First, Second and Seventh Symphonies are quite fine, with sharp rhythms and excellent shape. The Vienna Philharmonic plays with expected refinement, with an elegant string vibrato that no other orchestra can match. But nothing else is anything more than anodyne, and Thielemann seems not to understand a lot of the music. He deliberates his way through so much of the first movement of the ‘Eroica’ that there is no build-up of tension, and when the famous dissonant chords arrive, the effect is irritating when it should be wrenching. The same is true of the Fifth, which should build both tension and emotional commitment all the way to the opening of the final movement, and where under this conductor the music moves along without any particular point. The Ninth is okay, but nothing more. The DVD, which is a documentary about the project, should in no case be seen first, as it implies the music-making has some important new things to say.

The set does have a lot to say about the business of classical music. Thielemann’s relative stardom is a mystery to me. He seems competent but with nothing to say, the shame is that he comes out of a tradition of musicians like Günter Wand who were not only competent but had a great deal to say about the meaning of the music they led. But some combination of agents and record companies have decided the world needs documents of Thielemann’s pleasant and forgettable performances, so they put a sticker on the box calling it “The Beethoven Cycle of the 21st Century.” That’s true, because the results are bland, and 21st Century corporate consumer culture seeks to both narcotize us with and addict us to blandness.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and others, with superior conductors, shunned by the record companies, have gone their own way, and are creating a memorable and often important body of work. I wonder what executives have decided Thielemann is a star, and, when the sales don’t pan out, if that person will lose their job. But, of course they won’t, they’ll be promoted.

If for some reason you’re a fan of this conductor, then you will buy and enjoy this and nothing I have to say will dissuade you. If you’re looking for a good set of the Beethoven Symphonies, there are better ones that cost less. The Vänskä and Haitink sets are recent vintage, have great playing, sensible thinking and excellent sound. There are many good period instrument sets, I like the one from Anima Eterna the best, but Hogwoods’s is good, Norrington’s still holds up and you may find Gardiner more companionable than I do. On many days, the old school ones are the best, including Karajan’s first two cycles, Bernstein’s, the terrific and little-known one from Andre Cluytens and, if you can find it, the recordings from George Szell and the Cleveland Symphony, which are just great.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.