Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein
recorded live 2/78 (No. 2) 11/98 (No. 7) in Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna.
DG 469 545-2 [74.48]
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Bernstein's DG Beethoven Symphony cycle recorded live in Vienna has been a popular entry in DG's releases over the years. However in today's catalogue this one company has Beethoven Symphony cycles from Abbado (2 sets, plus individual issues of all), Böhm (1 set), Gardiner (complete and individual issues). Karajan is well represented (3 sets, plus most released separately from various cycles), Bernstein (mainly at full price but beginning to be released at low price like the current issue), to say nothing of individual issues by the likes of Giulini, Thieleman, Furtwängler, Kleiber, Kubelik, Sinopoli, and Fricsay.

Given all of these issues, one must ask "do we need yet another, and if the answer is 'yes', does the new issue provide a new outlook on the composer or work." I am afraid that the answer to this is 'no'.

Bernstein's Beethoven cycle was recorded at the time of great excesses in the industry, where artists such as Bernstein and Karajan were more or less given free reign to record whatever they liked, in the knowledge that the grateful public would snap up the latest release of their idols. I know, I used to do it! In the case of Bernstein, moving to DG after years with CBS (now Sony), he was given the opportunity to share with us his great love affair with the Vienna Philharmonic and a large number of recordings were issued. Many of them, for example the Mahler series, gave new insights into Bernstein's interpretations, but this Beethoven cycle, although very good, did not erase memories of the earlier New York performances. These had an animal ferocity and vitality that made them stand out, and the recordings, (now re-mastered) showed us what a rapport Bernstein had with his American band. The Vienna performances, although first rate, were a little too comfortable.

All of this may lead you to think that this issue is poor, and this is far from the truth. The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is first rate, albeit maybe a little too lush for Beethoven's direct utterances. Compare this issue with Kleiber's reading of the seventh (also with the Vienna PO), and you will hear what I mean. In the current issue it seems that love and affection between the orchestra and Bernstein is the overriding characteristic, whereas with Kleiber it is Beethoven that is to the fore.

Bernstein certainly knows how to perform Beethoven however, and these two symphonies illustrate this fact. Supple rhythms, clear delineation between musical strands, plenty of life, nothing very much wrong in fact. Live performances, caught on the wing, as most of Bernstein's later recordings were, but such is the skill of the DG engineers and tape editors, almost no evidence of an audience can be heard.

This is an excellent release to buy if you are unable to get your hands on the earlier Sony release which I feel represents Beethoven's intentions better, and also is a better representation of Bernstein's art. If you prefer a more modern recording, superior packaging, and a lower price, go for this issue - you won't be disappointed.

John Phillips

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