Pilar Lorengar, soprano; Klaus-Jurgen Wussow, narrator; George Szell, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca 448 593-2.
As I was listening recently to a new Naxos recording of Beethoven's complete incidental music to the play Egmont, I couldn't help thinking of and comparing it to George Szell's celebrated 1969 Decca rendering with the Vienna Philharmonic. Now, I thought it might be time to go back and mention that earlier disc because it is pretty special. Therefore, this is a new review of a 1996 remastering of a 1969 recording.
When Vienna's Royal Imperial Court Theater decided to stage poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's play Egmont in 1810 (thirty years after Goethe wrote it), they asked Beethoven to write the incidental music for it. Today, we don't see much of the play or the full score of the music, although the Overture has a remained a staple of the classical repertoire.
With the Naxos disc, a little of the complete incidental music (beyond the famous Overture) went a long way, and some of it even became a tad tedious without the accompanying stage action, especially toward the middle of the work. But here, with Szell, things are different, and there is much in the music, singing, and narration to enjoy. The Decca disc may presently be a little hard to find, as I believe it's out print, but it's so good it's worth tracking down.
The play itself is rather melodramatic, and Maestro Szell and the magnificent Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play it up not only for maximum dramatic effect but for it subtlety as well. By comparison to other conductors in the work, Szell and the VPO are more highly charged in their music making. In other words, you'll find the opening Overture powerful, the march to the execution emotionally draining, and the closing "Victory Symphony" thrilling, with the quieter interludes in between totally charming.
Soloist Pilar Lorengar cannot be faulted, her singing voice in the several vocal numbers exquisitely sweet and pure yet appropriately forceful. I hadn't remembered that the Szell disc included so much of the narration between each number, and narrator Klaus-Jurgen Wussow is positively inspired; I don't speak a word of German (the booklet insert contains translations), yet I loved just listening to the man speak. What with the orchestra's lofty playing, the soloist's poignant performances, and Szell's sublime conducting, this is a disc gets my highest-possible recommendation.
As far as Decca's sound is concerned, recorded in the Sofiensaal, Vienna, it is highly dynamic, very clean, and exceptionally clear, with strong dynamics, a wide stereo spread, a solid impact, and a quick transient response. The orchestra is never unduly hard, harsh, or forward, the orchestral soundstage lacking perhaps only the last degree of depth and ambience. Although Ms. Lorengar's voice is a touch metallic at times, this is hardly even a quibble on my part.
Great music. Great performance. Great sound. What do you think? Do I like it?
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer
Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.
Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer
For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.
For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst
I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.
Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.
It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.
When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.
So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio
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