Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 "Choral" (SACD review)

Christiane Oelze, soprano; Ingeborg Danz, mezzo soprano; Christoph Strehl, tenor; David Wilson-Johnson, bass-baritone; Collegium Vocale Gent; Academia Chigiana Siena. Philippe Herreweghe, Royal Flemish Philharmonic. PentaTone SACD PTC 5186 317.

For many years one of my favorite recordings of this work has been Eugen Jochum's Concertgebouw rendering (Philips/Belart) from the late Sixties. Full of spark and enthusiasm for the music, Jochum didn't so much play the piece as attack it in a spacious yet dynamic performance. I mention this because Philippe Herreweghe's new interpretation of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony shares some of that energy, at least in the first three-quarters of the work. Had he maintained this gait through to the finish, he might have displaced Jochum among my preferred Ninths rather than becoming simply another good interpretation on my shelf.

At the time Beethoven premiered the symphony in 1824, his fans apparently felt some anxiety about it. After all, everyone knew the composer had gone completely deaf by then; he hadn't produced a symphony in some ten years; and there was that unusual business of the soloists and chorus hanging about in the background. The audience was understandably on edge, but the symphony was, of course, a resounding success, as it has been ever since, its excitement and politics making it the crown jewel among the composer's output.

In the opening Allegro Herreweghe provides a wonderfully animated pace, setting the tone for what's to come and maintaining an appropriately steady, incremental buildup to the drama on hand. The Scherzo that follows shows a similar liveliness, although it doesn't quite catch fire as it might. Instead, Herreweghe displays a graceful lyricism despite the quick speeds that modern conductors now feel were Beethoven's intention.

The slow third-movement Adagio provides a breather, a respite from the tensions of the preceding segments. Yet, to be fair, under Herreweghe it isn't the sudden calm it sometimes is but a well-coordinated part of the music's organic whole, flowing naturally from the quicker tempos of the Molto vivace before it. Yes, there is much method in Herreweghe's direction.

Then we reach the movement we've been waiting for, the big, lengthy, glorious Finale, which Herreweghe plays with unexpected reserve. He still manages to achieve a somewhat grand effect, yet it isn't quite the grandiose upshot we were anticipating. As before, the conductor chooses to take most of the brisk tempos Beethoven indicates but without appearing hurried or hectic. The result is a decidedly heroic yet relaxed Ninth, more elegant than it is athletic. Frankly, though, I was hoping for the latter because Herreweghe's reading never moved me the way Jochum's always has. So maybe this whole business of music making has more black magic in it than we like to believe.

The PentaTone audio engineers capture the sonics on a hybrid SACD, with a regular stereo layer for playback on an ordinary CD player and a multichannel layer for stereo or multichannel Super Analogue playback.  Listening in stereo, the 2009 recording sounded fine, with a reasonably good depth of field, well-integrated vocals, and ultrasmooth yet lifelike reproduction. While the sound hasn't the deepest bass, it does have a solid foundation, with realistic imaging and a superb timpani attack. There are no traces of hardness here, edginess, brightness, forwardness, or other such distractions. Miked at a moderate distance the disc provides a warm, truthful presentation, even if, like the performance, it doesn't exactly set the blood to racing.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa