In 2000, Deutsche Grammophon released the complete Beethoven symphonies with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, taken from concerts in Berlin. Conductor and orchestra subsequently toured the cycle, and the performances they gave in Rome in January 2001 were recorded on video and released on DVD. Now those later accounts have been re-edited and released in this audio-only boxset that replaces the Berlin cycle, which has been withdrawn. "Our interpretative vision had matured. The concerts in Rome marked significant advances in terms of spirit, style and technique," says Abbado.
Strictly speaking, the set is not entirely new to CD. The performance of the Ninth from the original Berlin cycle, with the Swedish Radio Choir and Karita Mattila, Violeta Urmana, Thomas Moser and Thomas Quasthoff as the outstanding soloists, has been retained. If this proves to be Abbado's last recorded word on Beethoven's symphonies, it is a wonderful distillation of half a century's experience of conducting these works.
Yet there is nothing old-fashioned or conservative about these performances, which are characterised by their lithe, dancing rhythms, transparent textures and perfectly articulated phrasing. This is Beethoven looking back to Mozart and Haydn just as much as his barn-storming moments anticipate the romantic world to come, and it's the wit and delicacy of the even-numbered symphonies that provide the most ravishing moments of all - Abbado's featherlight handling of the opening movement of the Eighth, for instance, is a perfect example of the way in which his conducting is all about upbeats, about moving the music forward under its own volition rather than dragging it by the nose.