Beethoven Symphonies 1-9

Beethoven Symphonies 1-9 (or Complete Beethoven Symphonies) box set. Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in all nine Beethoven symphonies. Other performers featured in Symphony No. 9 are Annette Dasch (Soprano), Eva Vogel (Mezzo-Soprano), Christian Elsner (Tenor), Dimitry Ivashchenko (Bass), and the Rundfunkchor Berlin (Simon Halsey, Chorus Master). Grade: C+ (average for the 9 symphonies, based on specific grades for 6 titles and other general observations)

This review applies only to the Blu-ray video and not to the CDs or Blu-ray audio disc included in the box. The box contains:

  • 5 CDs (i.e. PCM 44.1kHz/16-bit)
  • 1 Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc (audio is listed on the box as 96kHz/24-bit – in both 2.0 PCM Stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD MA)
  • 2 Video Blu-ray Discs (audio is listed on the box as 48 kHz/16 bit – in both 2.0 PCM Stereo and 5.0 Surround upmix DTS-HD MA)
  • Download code for obtaining high-resolution audio files (up to 192kHz/24-bit FLAC files)
  • 7-day ticket for Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall
  • 74 page booklet (in English and German) with track listings, brief notes on each symphony, 2 articles, a listing of orchestra musicians, and production details and credits

The video directors vary among the titles as follows:

  • Symphonies Nos. 1, 3, 4, & 7 – directed by Tilo Krause
  • Symphonies Nos. 2, 5, & 9 – directed by Andreas Morell
  • Symphonies Nos. 6 & 8 – directed by Torben Schmidt Jacobsen

The recording location was the Philharmonie Berlin. The booklet and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s archive concert listings both indicate that these works were performed on the following dates:

  • 6, 12 October 2015 (Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3) – Blu-ray Video Disc features the October 12 performance
  • 7, 13 October 2015 (Symphonies Nos. 2 & 5) – Blu-ray Video Disc features the October 13 performance
  • 3, 9, 15 October 2015 (Symphonies Nos. 4 & 7) – Blu-ray Video Disc features the October 15 performance
  • 8, 14 October 2015 (Symphonies Nos. 6 & 8 – performed in reverse order) – Blu-ray Video Disc features the October 14 performance
  • 10, 16 October 2015 (Symphony No. 9) – Blu-ray Video Disc features the October 16 performance

An option is included for Symphony No. 9 with subtitles in German, English, and Japanese. Movement titles are shown on the screen for all works.

The Berliner Philharmoniker and Rundfunkchor

Sir Simon Rattle’s contract with the Berliner Philharmoniker expires in 2018, and he appears to be tackling recordings of a number of masterworks while he has the opportunity to work with these fine musicians. While the LSO is no slouch, the reputation of the Berliners is somewhat more auspicious! To quote Sir Simon from one of the disc’s special features, “When you have an orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic, of course you have a huge advantage because of the basic personality of the orchestra . . . which is one of a colossal – almost superhuman – energy. And this, for Beethoven, is the very first thing you need, because otherwise he asks from you more than you can give.”

Beethoven’s symphonies have been well represented on HDVD, with reputable complete cycles by Thielemann, Jansons, and Fischer published in recent years. I own the Fischer/RCO set, and while I find his performances to be very compelling (folk-like elements, perhaps a more lighthearted conversational approach) . . . I have connected quite differently to Rattle’s Beethoven.

Daniel Stabrawa (1st Concertmaster), in one of the special feature interviews, describes different approaches that have been taken by past conductors of the Berliner Philharmoniker to Beethoven (Maestros Claudio Abbado and Herbert von Karajan are mentioned in this particular quote): “Simon Rattle combines these two: Claudio’s briskness, translucency, and virtuosity with Karajan’s deep tone colours.” Rattle is obviously aware of historically-informed performance practices, but he also respects some of the more “big-boned” influences from Germanic Beethoven tradition. In other words, Rattle's performances are “full” rather than “lean”, “energetic and driving” but not “harsh”, and, in my view, unique. Further, Rattle is not afraid to play with tempi to emphasize dramatic effect, mostly (at least to my ears) to great success.

Some stand-out moments for me were as follows (mentioned in the order in which I viewed them):

  • Symphony No. 9, 46:53 to 49:41. This is the instrumental recitative section that precedes the Ode to Joy theme in the fourth movement. This section provides a particularly masterful demonstration of Rattle’s control of tempo and use of rubato. The remainder of the piece maintains this high bar, with soloists and choir all in top form as the movement carries us to a truly joyful finale.
  • The finale of Symphony No. 7 was absolutely rollicking, with so much momentum I felt I was racing the Kentucky Derby!
  • Symphony No. 5 was perhaps more subtle than the Symphony No. 7, as it combined elements of hushed intensity with others of majesty . . . rather than being all bark & bite!
  • Despite my most easily recalled moments being the quicker ones, I can confidently add that Rattle maintains a strong sense of musical line in the slow movements with no loss of personality in the playing.

But as we have seen in many recently published symphony Blu-rays, there is a serious video content problem with the video recordings in this box. There is a special feature that describes the extent of planning undertaken for Berliner Philharmoniker video productions (the same feature also appeared on the Sibelius box by the same publisher), including bar-by-bar analysis of the score. A lot of work went into making the videos. But the producers’ goals were obsolete.

Even though the producers apparently never planned to publish the Beethoven recordings in DVD, they in fact prepared DVD-style videos. It seems they were not aware that symphony videos for Blu-ray (or HDVD) can't be made the same way one makes a DVD. They didn't know that a good DVD can't be a good HDVD, and a good HDVD can't be a good DVD. So now, even though the recordings have HD images, they suffer from what we call DVDitis.

Confused? See our special article Standards for Grading Symphony Orchestra Concerts of Symphonies, Concertos, and other Large-scale Compositions. After working your way through that article and some of the many reviews on this site discussing DVDitis, you will understand the following mantra:

A good HDVD should have a slow pace with more than 10 seconds per video clip on average (longer the better). 20 to 40% (higher is better) of the clips should be large-scale "supershots." Conductor shots should be less than 20% (way less really) of the clips in the video.

And how can you determine whether a particular video is a good HDVD by virtue of a slow pace, a large number of supershots, and small number of condutor shots? Why, you get a Wonk Worksheet, step your way through each clip in the recording, fill in the blanks, and "run the numbers." Then you can tell if your Blu-ray symphony recording is infected with DVDitis or is a modern HDVD with a clean bill of health. If you would like to see an example of a filled-in WW, click here for my numbers on Rattle's Beethoven Symphony No. 9.

I ran the numbers on 6 of the 9 symphonies in the Beethoven box – two for each video director – and graded each symphony individually. I've seen all the videos, and I'll represent that all the symphonies are similar in video content to the ones I studied closely.

In accordance with the HDVDarts.com formula for grading Blu-ray concert performances, I started with an A+ grade. The sound on the video Blu-rays is not published to modern 96kHz/24-bit standards, but the SQ is excellent. Therefore, only a partial grade deduction is applied for this criterion, bringing us to an A. Video throughout the set has good clarity (16:9, 1080/60i) and remarkably few errors as far as I could notice, so no further deduction is necessary for PQ. There are some very quick zooms in Symphony No. 7, but I didn’t feel this was serious enough to warrant a deduction.

I then deducted a letter grade for each of the 3 tests in our mantra that a title flunks. For Symphony No. 9, I was able to grade against a fourth test: greater than 50% of soloist shots should be “realistic.” This criterion is explained in more detail in the Wonk Worksheet Instructions.

Following these rules, I prepared statistics for two titles from each of the three video directors, and here are my results:

  Symphony 

3

7

5

9

6

8

  Pace (s/clip)

8.4 s

6.8 s

5.8 s

7.3 s

8.4 s

6.8 s

  Supershots

24%

23%

20%

25%

7%

14%

 Conductor  Shots 

26%

24%

28%

27%

15%

17%

Soloist  -  % “Realistic”

N/A

N/A

N/A

100 %

N/A

N/A

Grade

C

C

D1

C+2

D3

C

Director

Tilo Krause

Andreas Morell

Torben Schmidt Jacobsen

1 - Grade further reduced for fast pace  2 - Grade increased for realistic soloist shots  3 - Grade further reduced for very low supershot count

A straight average would bring us close to a C-. I will bump the final grade for the whole set to C+ given my impression of this cycle as such a remarkable musical achievement. 

Now let's consider some screenshots taken at random from the 6 graded recordings. To readers who recently read my story about the Sibelius Complete Symphonies box, these may look familiar. The Berliner Philharmoniker records nearly all (or all) of their concerts for their Digital Concert Hall subscription streaming video service, and they obviously have the routine down pat. In other words, there seems to be quite a bit of consistency in the overall “menu” of shots available for each video director to choose from.

Whole-orchestra ("WO") and part-orchestra ("PO") shots are typically from good viewing angles. This series of shots illustrates the various sizes of orchestra used in the performances, as well as a couple of different zoom levels  for the WO shots:

Below next are 6 nice PO shots at zoom levels more appropriate for seeing individual musicians:

Next below are examples of other typical large-scale shots. Given that the size of the orchestra is different in different titles, the number of musicians required for a large-scale shot can also vary:

1st Violins:

The 2nd violins were placed opposite to the 1st violins in all 9 symphonies:

It is often more problematic to film the internal string sections, in this case the violas and cellos. These shots tend to look congested. We’ll start with a shot of the violas:

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In a title with 6 cellos, I perhaps generously counted 4 cellos in the view below . . . which resulted in calling this a large-scale shot:

It is more readily obvious that the next 3 shots below should be considered large-scale:

Here next below is a shot that contains a mix of violas and cellos, adding to its congested feel:

The three shots next below were all evaluated as large-scale double bass clips:

Given the level of “zoom-out” needed to film the timpani, sometimes these shots can border on feeling large-scale. I was tempted to classify the first shot as large-scale (given that multiple sections were playing), but it's a small-scale shot because only 3 players are seen. The second shot below is a “solo” or “small-scale” view because only one player is working:

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"Conductor-over-back” shots (C/B) were typically at high-enough angles where part of the orchestra could be viewed fairly well. On rare occasions, I was sufficiently compelled by the orchestra view to categorize the shot as a PO:

Although something like this next shot below would normally be a no-brainer for a C/B, in this particular sequence there was enough going on in the violins to draw my attention away from Sir Simon:

 Symphony No. 7 had more instances of C/B shots taken at lower angles, as seen in the next two clips below. It about impossible to improve the grade by rescuing these shots:

Despite the presence of high-quality shots in these productions, I did notice quite a number of “repeat offenders” that I felt were negatively impacted by less-than-optimal sight lines or unclear focal points.  Next below are some examples:

If at first you don’t succeed, zoom in closer?

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Now let's consider some more successful small-scale shots. It is possible to make a nice shot of a row of violinists:

It is also possible to have a clearer focal point:

Next below are some shots of the soloists and choir from Symphony No. 9, all of whom were well filmed:

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The choir was very large, exceeding 70 singers:

Although these are not the best shots, I classified them as large-scale based on “feel”:

I called the shot below "small-scale":

While I believe Rattle to be an engaging conductor to watch, please be forewarned that he makes a lot of appearances for long durations in this cycle. Nearly all of the titles exceed the recommended maximum of 20% of conductor shots:

Update on 2016-06-11 17:23 by Henry McFadyen Jr.

Richard Osborne reviewed this Rattle box in the June 2016 Gramophone at pages 27-28. (This time we know he watched this in Blu-ray because there's no DVD version.) He bemoans the "input of [the] video directors, whose grasp of the music is often tenuous." Wow. He's seeing the DVDitis ---  but in his innocence, he knows not what it is. Poor guy. Most of his print review is devoted to Osborne's opinions of other legacy Beethoven 1-9 boxes that he treasures from the past.