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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Symphonies

Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21 (1800) [26:08]
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36 (1802) [33:43]
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica) (1804) [47:46]
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60 (1806) [23:43]
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67 (1806) [33:38]
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral) (1808) [42:57]
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92 (1812) [40:38]
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93 (1812) [24:51]
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral) (1824) [65:36]
Šimona Saturova (soprano), Mihako Fujimura (contralto), Christian Elsner (tenor), Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Gewandhaus Chor, Gewandhaus Kinderchor, MDR Rundfunk Chor
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. live, May 2014-March 2017, Neues Gewandhaus, Leipzig
ACCENTUS MUSIC ACC80322 [5 CDs: 339:00]

In the UK Blomstedt is best known for his recordings of Scandinavian music: his versions of Nielsen (EMI and Decca) are still standard references and his Sibelius symphonies (Decca) are also very fine. In the Viennese classics he is probably best known for his Brahms and his Bruckner – of whom he recently completed a cycle. His previous Beethoven cycle, with the Dresden Staatskapelle, was warmly received and is still available but has never been considered a front runner. His recording of Beethoven’s Leonore, the first version of the opera Fidelio, is outstanding, and every admirer of the work should have it. Now, as he approached the age of ninety, he has given us what are presumably his final thoughts on the composer.

The booklet accompanying this set tells us a good deal about how he approached this task. He became Music Director of the Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig in 1998, succeeding Kurt Masur, and held the position until 2005, when he was followed by Riccardo Chailly. During his tenure he worked on the orchestra’s sound, which he described on arrival as dark and thick. He made them play more Haydn and Mozart to improve their articulation. He changed their platform layout, moving the second violins to the right-hand side. This is what the Viennese classical composers expected, and the numerous antiphonal passages in the symphonies benefit from it. There was a good deal of resistance to this at first, but it was retained when Chailly took over.

These recordings were made between 2014 and 2017 and Blomstedt returned to the orchestra to make them. He rethought his approach, using the new standard edition of the scores prepared by Jonathan del Mar, and taking Beethoven’s metronome marks, usually considered far too fast, seriously, though not literally. He is very careful about dynamic markings: following with the scores I could clearly hear how he distinguishes between Beethoven’s forte and his fortissimo, and how observes the sudden sfp markings, and the crescendos leading to a sudden piano. He also observes all the repeats, including the scherzi after the trios (apart from in No. 8), and the big first movements really gain from this.

There are only two points which might be considered controversial, and I realise I am probably in a minority here. First, the balance between wind and strings; the deaf composer occasionally miscalculated and there is a risk of the wind band being drowned by a large string band, such as Blomstedt uses. Blomstedt usually manages to avoid this, though I don’t know whether he accepted help from the engineers to do so. (There are some points, such as near the end of the first movement of No 9, where they are intended to drown the wind and indeed do so.) The other is that he rejects the emendations to the orchestration proposed by Wagner, Weingartner and others. These mostly affect the brass. The horns and trumpets of Beethoven’s day could not play a complete scale except in their highest register, and he had to use various devices to cover for this. For example, the opening of the second subject in the first movement of No. 5 is announced the first time proudly on the horns. When it returns in a different key Beethoven has to put it on the bassoons because the horns did not have the relevant notes. Tovey thought continuing with this once modern instruments were available was “really a mistaken reverence for Beethoven” and “an unmitigated nuisance” and it used to be standard practice to transfer the passage to the horns. I remember Szell and Böhm doing so, and filling out the brass parts in similar places. However, Blomstedt sticks to the original scoring. I dare say most listeners now won’t notice, or won’t mind, or may prefer it.

So, what he gives us could be called traditional big-band German Beethoven, somewhat informed by period practice, though less so than, say, Abbado, in his final set with the Berlin Philharmonic, let alone Mackerras, who used the Scottish Chamber Orchestra except for No. 9. The set is characterised by power, control and sensitivity. The tumultuous power that Beethoven can command, for example in the outer movements of Nos. 3, 5, 7 and 9, comes over with great force, but one never has the sense of a machine taking over because of Blomstedt’s careful, indeed fastidious control of the dynamics which I have mentioned. The sensitivity is seen in his shaping of the many woodwind solos, with fine solo work by the Gewandhaus principals and his decisions about tempo and articulation, all of which seem natural and inevitable. Indeed, one of the strengths of this cycle, as of all good performances of the classics, is that while you are listening this seems to be the only way to play them.

Turning to the individual performances, Blomstedt does not treat the first two symphonies as simply continuations of the Haydn and Mozart tradition, as does, for example, Marriner, an approach which I also find very acceptable. Instead, for him they are both big symphonies, looking forward to the later works rather than backward to Beethoven’s predecessors. His work with the orchestra clearly shows in the precise articulation of the main theme of the first movement of No. 1, when it arrives after the slow introduction, and in the phrasing of the string lines and the subtle rhythmic tattoo on the timpani in the second movement. I also greatly enjoyed the vitality of this performance and the clarity of the different lines. I feel Stravinsky would have liked this.

No. 2 is a much grander work and here I particularly liked Blomstedt’s handling of the antiphonal writing between strings and wind in the first movement and also the balancing of the two groups in the second. The scherzo is absolutely characteristic Beethoven, a piece he could have written at any stage of his career; here precision is vital and also exact observance of the dynamics, both of which we get. I have never greatly cared for the finale of this work – the main theme seems to me like an unsuccessful attempt at a Haydnesque joke – but I have no quarrels with what Blomstedt does here.

With the Eroica, Blomstedt avoids putting all the weight on the Funeral March but sees it as a stage in the progress towards the finale, which is about new creativity shown in the way the bass leads to the theme and then to the variations on the theme. In the first movement I noted no slowing for the second subject, the development was suitably fierce and the return to the recapitulation with the horn entry in the ‘wrong’ key was as exciting as it should be. In the Funeral March I noted the power of the fugue and the quietness of the ending. After this the scherzo is an explosion of energy. In the finale I greatly liked the moving passage just before the end, where the wind and strings exchange repeated notes over a repeated low G in the cellos. To get this right is to get the symphony right, and this Blomstedt does.

In No. 4 he conveys the depth and mystery of the opening, and we remember that this is a conductor who has excelled in Brahms. There is a terrific drive to the Allegro when we get to it. In the slow movement I particularly liked the precise articulation of the dotted rhythm, the expressiveness of the solo wind lines, particularly in the passages where they play the same melody three octaves deep. We then have the double alternation of scherzo and trio and the finale is an exciting whirlwind of sound.

I have already commented on Blomstedt’s decision to stick with the original makeshift scoring in No. 5. However, the main point is that he sees the first movement not as composed of short fragments but in a long line. I marked several passages for praise in the slow movement. The Scherzo has the sinister quality noted by E. M. Forster in Howards End, where the opening is described as “a goblin walking quietly over the universe from end to end”. (Blomstedt does not make the second repeat of the Scherzo, first drafted by Beethoven but later removed.) After this the finale has the necessary exultant irresistible onward rush and the return of the scherzo has the quality so memorably described by Tovey: “Beethoven recalls the third movement as a memory which we know for a fact but can no longer understand: there is now a note of self-pity, for which we had no leisure when the terror was upon our souls: the depth and the darkness are alike absent, and in the dry light of day we cannot remember our fears of the unknown”.

The Pastoral is sheer delight. Blomstedt takes the slow movement, ‘By the Brook’, at a slightly faster speed than usual and it benefits from this. The birdsong imitations are charmingly done. The finale strikes the right note of rejoicing and the muted horn at the end – the only time, I believe, that Beethoven uses this effect – is most poetic.

No. 7 comes over as a mighty work, with apt choices of tempo and a willingness to bring in light and shade and avoid a relentless driving on. There is intense pathos in the slow movement and in the faster movements the emphasis is on power rather than speed.

No. 8 comes over as a fierce little work, short but strong and with plenty of Beethoven’s slightly scary humour. This is most evident in the finale where the apparently cheerful opening theme suddenly produces a loud and irrelevant C sharp, a trick not explained until just before the end.

Of course the test of any Beethoven symphony cycle comes in No. 9. What I noticed about the first movement was not only enormous power but also restraint, with the many piano and pianissimo passages well observed and all the stronger for it. At the end of the exposition I longed for Wagner’s clarification of the wind writing, though the Leipzigers do what they can with the awkward lines. The Scherzo has a mysterious secret energy which suddenly bursts out. The bassoons have a delightful entry at the ritmo di tre battute and the trio is serene. The slow movement, like that of the Pastoral is kept moving, and the increasing elaboration of the violin lines comes over as genuinely decorative and beautiful, which is not always the case. The Schrekensfanfare at the opening is gap-toothed, because of the limitations of the brass instruments and the first statement of the Joy theme is brisk and matter of fact. Once Christian Gerhaher summons us to attune our voices more acceptably the emotional temperature rises. The first choral entry is slightly woolly but the chorus soon recovers and the solo quartet is superb. There is a wonderfully energetic and gripping rendering of the double fugue and the passage about the loving father above the starry heavens, which Tovey called “the central thought of the ninth symphony”, comes off with the awe and majesty Beethoven wanted. In the following Allegro the choral sopranos hang on to their top A with a will and the performance ends in triumph.

These recordings were made at live performances in the Gewandhaus with its excellent acoustics. I don’t know whether there were patches before or subsequently but you would not know that an audience was there; no applause is included. The booklet has interesting material about Blomstedt’s work with the orchestra and lots of pictures of him. The discs are each in a doublefold cardboard sleeve and the set comes in a slipcase. Regrettably, there is no account of the symphonies themselves. I therefore direct both newcomers and old hands to Tovey’s essays, available in his Symphonies volume published now by Dover.

There are of course many other Beethoven cycles available. I would rank this as a first rate traditional set, with excellent playing, singing in No. 9 and inspiring conducting. My few reservations do not preclude an enthusiastic recommendation.

Stephen Barber



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