Beethoven Symphonies (1-9)


The Beethoven Symphonies has all 9 symphonies performed by the Symphonieorchester and Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Radio Symphony and Chorus). Mariss Jansons conducted this in 2012 at Suntory Hall in Tokyo, and Peter Dijkstra was Chorus Master. Soloists are Christiane Karg (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (alto), Michael Schade (tenor), and Michael Volle (bass). Title has 3 discs, each with 3 symphonies, plus a bonus. TV Director was Hisao Tonooka. Released 2013, discs have 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound. 

Suntory Main Hall in Tokyo is, I think, one of the most important venues in Japan for western classical music. It has excellent lighting and support for state-of-the-art sound and video recording. NHK is, of course, headquartered in Tokyo, and they have some of the best audio and video engineers in the business. So wonk James Kreh, who volunteered to review this, and I had high hopes for this set. Alas, our hopes were dashed as Kreh now reports:

On paper, this set of Beethoven symphonies had all the makings of a 21st-century standard-bearer for HDVD productions of this music: (1) a superb conductor with a top-flight orchestra rehearsed to a fare-thee-well, (2) co-production by NHK (responsible for the finest HDVD published to date) in its home base of Tokyo, and (3) a reasonable expectation (based on NHK’s participation and speculation in certain Web forums) that state-of-the-art audio (96kHz/24-bit or perhaps even 192kHz/24-bit) would be exploited. On this basis, I purchased this set without benefit of any reliable reviews that might have confirmed these expectations. My summary advice to anyone thinking about springing for this set: Don't.

These are all fine performances – pretty much middle-of-the-road Beethoven with no idiosyncrasies, recorded in very nice 48kHz/24-bit audio, full and resonant with a solid low-frequency range. So, despite NHK’s involvement, the producers settled for audio specifications that are minimally acceptable by current HDVD standards. Part of my decision to go forward with purchasing this set was a brief review (dated 11/16/2013) which stated that the “192k sound” was the “best sound I’ve heard yet.” That appeared to confirm the previously referenced Web speculation. Unfortunately, the Amazon reviewer didn’t know what he was talking about. My OPPO BDP-103 player specifically reports 48k as the sampling rate on both the stereo and surround tracks.

My disappointment with the technical limitations of the audio just might have been mostly ameliorated if the video had been done in the style of the Bruckner Symphony No. 9 and Schumann Piano Concerto.  Sadly, nothing of the sort is in evidence here. This set contains over 6 hours of video with a fully developed case of chronic DVDitis. I would estimate that more than 90% of the coverage consists of shots of 1-6 players, close-ups of the conductor, and the dreaded over-the-backs-of-the-musicians views of the conductor from at least a couple of angles. Most of the audience-perspective shots of the full (or partial) orchestra occur while they’re not playing (typically before the start, between movements, and at the end of each symphony). Who cares what view we get of the orchestra when it’s not playing? For all that it matters, the intervals between movements could just as well be edited out. To be fair, there is the occasional brief full-orchestra shot while the music is playing, but these don’t amount to much. After immersing myself in this quagmire of DVDitis, I found it necessary to watch the Bruckner/Schumann disc just to cleanse my HDVD palette, which of course served to further emphasize how bad the Beethoven video is.

For me, the only real value of these discs would be realized by listening while ignoring (or just turning off) the video. Of course, no one is looking for an HDVD that would be used only for the audio. To the best of my knowledge, there are currently no recommendable HDVDs of any of the Beethoven symphonies (reader comments are particularly invited on this point!). I’ve auditioned Beethoven Symphonies 7-9/Thielemann (available separately or in a 3-disc complete set) and found the performances less compelling than those by Jansons, and with video just as much afflicted with DVDits. At present, my recommendations for a Beethoven symphony cycle would have to be limited to audio-only discs: Vanska/Minnesota (BIS: 5-disc box set) or Jarvi/Bremen (RCA: 5 separate discs), both of which are studio recordings of superb performances in great sound. Both cycles are on hybrid SACDs, with high-resolution 5.0 sound available if your system is SACD-capable. Eventually someone will likely produce a great Beethoven cycle for HDVD, but so far, unfortunately, we haven’t even come close.

The 3 discs (containing Symphonies 1-3, 4-6, and 7-9 respectively) are packaged in separate keepcases, each housing a nice 20-page trilingual booklet with movement timings and background information on the applicable works.

For using audio that merely meets de facto standards for HDVDs, we automatically downgrade from a potential "A+" to an "A." Because of video that was strictly conceived for DVD presentation and utterly fails to exploit the possibilities of HDVD, we arrive at a final grade of "C," (a grade that I frankly consider to be generous).

Thank you again, Jim, for viewing this and giving us such a complete review. Due to your generous efforts, our readers will be fully informed before they make their purchase decisions. For the benefit of new readers of this website, I'll suggest they learn about DVDitis by reading our special article on this disease. Grade: C

Update on 2015-03-06 by Henry McFadyen Jr.

NHK in Japan issued Blu-ray recordings of these Beethoven Symphonies 1-9 as follows:

  • NSBS-18598 w/ No. 3 and 4
  • NSBS-18599 w/ No. 1, 2 and 5
  • NSBS-18600 w/ No. 6 and 7
  • NSBS-18601 w/ No. 8 and 9

HWV Online in Japan reports that all of these were recorded using 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling. In March 2015, it would cost about $200 plus shipping to get these recordings for review. I would not want to spend that much time and treasure on this when James Kreh has reported that the video is infected with DVDitis. I'm pretty sure the video on the Japanese recordings is the same as the video Jim saw in the box from Arthaus.

If anyone can tell me I'm wrong about this, I'll buy the Japanese records and report on them.