Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Happy Not Beethoven's Birthday

If you're interested in getting some classical music on DVD, I can confidently recommend this cycle of the complete symphonies of Beethoven, with the SWR Baden-Baden Symphony conducted by Michael Gielen.

I've written before about Gielen, who is one of the best living conductors and who has quietly made a huge number of recordings with this fine German orchestra. (Most of his audio recordings are available on CD on Haenssler classics, and include the best modern cycle of Mahler symphonies.) He brings a modernist sensibility to everything he conducts; he doesn't like sentimentality -- even his conducting gestures are restrained and matter-of-fact -- but that doesn't mean he shies away from letting the orchestra make exciting noises; he just tries to bring out the "advanced," forward-looking qualities of any music he handles. With Beethoven, he tends to follow the composer's metronome markings, though he's not rigid about it the way a lot of conductors are, and he always makes his tempi work: the first movement of the Pastoral Symphony is about as fast as I've ever heard it, but what it does is to take a movement that sometimes sounds trivial and cozy and make it sound downright exciting.

Gielen uses divided violins, a plus in this music; the sound is pretty good, though not as good as some of his studio CD recordings with the same orchestra; the visuals are pretty basic -- a lot of cutting from section to section -- but at least they don't distract from the music. At the lowish price, a good investment both as an audio-visual Beethoven cycle and an introduction to a superb conductor.

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