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Mike Goist,, June 11, 2006

Beethoven Symphonies 5&7

A souless butchery - Thielemann can't be serious

I've heard both of these recordings on the radio multiple times. Every time that I listen to the host announce the conductor and the orchestra before the recording starts, I visibly cringe, and then I forcibly subject myself to the torture that follows. Why? So that I can remind myself that any great work of art is constantly under attack from well-meaning but misguided interpreters; so that when I listen to a real recording of these symphonies, I can appreciate them even more; and finally because I always enjoy a good laugh, which is exactly what these recordings bring, without fail.

Thielemann's only merit in these performances is his expert control of the orchestra. The Philharmonia Orchestra is always together and precise. This is the most praise you will get from me. The music itself is dull and tedious. These fine musicians play all the notes correctly and without mistakes, but they play like mannequins, going through all the motions, attempting to make something out of the lifeless waste that Thielemann throws at them. The first movement of the 5th sounds like a stroll in the park, and the famous four note motif, portly to begin with, grows tubbier and more annoying each time around. Each of the movements of both symphonies is presented in the same style: plodding, mannered, directionless, without muscle, impulse, or drive, and intentionally drawn out to create artificial profundity. This is basically a lesson on how not to conduct a Beethoven symphony.

For a completely different interpretation, I highly recommend recordings by David Zinman and Benjamin Zander. Zander's CD is on the Telarc label and comes with a bonus disc that explains why recordings like this one suck, as well as providing amazing insight into the fabric of these two great works. The orchestra in that recording? The very same Philharmonia Orchestra that is so bored out of its mind in this recording. With Zander, the Philharmonia is transformed back into a breathing ensemble that plays its heart out for the cause. Zinman's recording, with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, uses reduced forces and the new critical Barenreiter Urtext edition (for all you scholars out there), and their performance is stylisically groundbreaking in many respects. Both Zinman and Zander and their respective ensembles turn in performances that are propulsive, exciting, worldly, intuitive, and unrelenting in their honesty and delivery. Both are several tiers above this pretentious mess.


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