The many recorded cycles of Beethoven symphonies have been reckoning up by dozens, like Sir Joseph's female relations, but I feel the fondest of this entire cycle among the historically-informed versions. Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his period-instrument forces have brushed these works clean of cobwebs, such that they sound fresh, clean and in line with what Beethoven would have wanted us to experience. To be sure, some listeners who favour the anodyne Karajanesque or Furtwangleresque approach applied to these works would be upset with the fast speeds, but these readings hardly sound wooden and mechanical. Rather, open-hearted listeners can find that Sir John shapes the music and allows articulate detail to mingle with the emotions in these works, helped by DG's transparent and luminous 4-D audio recording.
Throughout this cycle, Sir John brings out the "bloodthirsty beauty" of Beethoven's symphonies, keeping us on the edge with the well-articulated and heartfelt interpretations of the major symphonies. Yet there is still Mozartian-like charm in the early symphonies, especially the First and Second. In the longer symphonies Sir John's classical approach still allows us to feel Beethoven's emotions, and the nuances of the music are keenly and cleanly fleshed out. You can feel the Olympian power of the Eroica in a relentless and fierry performance, and the relentless drive of the Fifth that can well resonate with human conditions. The rhythmically-driven renditions of the 7th and 8th bring out the bucolic charm and character of the piece. The brisk speeds of the Pastoral don't sound rushed, but still allow for a warmly affable, cheerful and open-hearted reading that sounds welcoming of the open countryside that so influenced this music, aided by keen and detailed woodwind playing. And then there is the monumental Ninth, the crowning achievement in this wonderful cycle with new delights to explore. It's true that this approach to this music is iconoclastic to the established grandiose way of performing this music, but this version is the most successful in integrating an emotional approach to the music with a keen sense of accuracy. The finale truly sounds like an affirmation of joy that binds us all humans, and the bucolic Scherzo has a natural spring to it, similar to what many modern performances would capture. It's true that the first and third movements are twice as fast as we are used to, but we can feel that these performances successfully integrate structure and feeling to depict the Titanic struggle that Beethoven wanted this music to portray. But this is still a keen crowning achievement to this fresh and cohesive cycle of Beethoven symphonies.
In short, I feel compelled to count this historically-informed cycle of unexpurgated Beethoven a cycle that should eventually suit all tastes. Although some older-generation listeners would recommend springing for Karajan's box, this cycle allows for a cleaner approach to the music that benefits Beethoven and ourselves. Maybe in time this historically informed cycle will allow more people to discover the bloodthirsty beauty in Beethoven's music, but its great merit is that it successfully infuses the cerreberal (scholarly) approach with the anodyne approach, and gives new life to these well-worn works.