Beethoven: The 9 Symphonies (CD review)

Eugen Jochum, Concertgebouw Orchestra. Philips Original Masters 475 8147 (5-disc set).

Some years ago, I overheard the manager of a classical record store telling a customer that he thought Eugen Jochum and Karl Bohm were mere "kapellmeisters," routine bandmasters, neither more nor less. I kept out of it, but I couldn't help thinking how differently I felt about these conductors. Both of these men were leaders of great orchestras for something like six decades, and both of them produced recordings that even today are among the best ever made. Jochum, for instance, has never been surpassed in his performances of the late Haydn symphonies, the Brahms Piano Concertos (with Emil Gilels), the Mozart "Jupiter" Symphony, or Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, to name just a few. "Mere kapellmeister," indeed!

To my knowledge, Jochum recorded the complete Beethoven symphonies in stereo three times: First on DG in the Fifties with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bavarian RSO; then in the Sixties on Philips in the set we have here with the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam; and finally in the Seventies on EMI with the London Symphony Orchestra. I've heard most of these recordings at one time or another, and each of them has its merits. But for this review it's the Philips set were dealing with that includes the complete cycle in a budget-priced box; and while one can often do better buying individual conductors and recordings, this five-disc box is an excellent buy at the price. Granted, the set might not be an absolute and only first choice for most dedicated classical-music fans, but for the avid collector, the curious experimenter, or the casual listener, one can hardly lose.

Everyone will have personal favorites among the Jochum-Philips group, mine being Nos. 4, 8, and 9.  Perhaps because the former two are not among the biggest and most-popular of Beethoven's symphonies, they do not have as much competition; but his Ninth can easily compete with any of the multitudinous performances on record. Be that as it may, I find all of the interpretations wholly enjoyable, musical, lyrical, spirited, and joyous. At the other end of the spectrum, the only symphony in the set I don't think finds Jochum at his best is No. 5. There, he seems to lack the requisite spark, the electricity, the dynamism of several other conductors, like Kleiber and Reiner, for instance.

The First and Second Symphonies, however, are done up in fine style, a bit old-fashioned, maybe, by today's standards, thanks to the period-instruments' crowd, but pleasurable. Jochum's Third is also quite good, appropriately epic in proportion, the energy strong and concentrated. The Sixth is a recording I have long held dear in Jochum's later EMI account, but on direct comparison, there is not much difference except in the very slightly warmer EMI sound. The interpretations are loving, flowing, tranquil, and unhurried, and they still bring much joy to the heart. In the Seventh, Jochum continues his affection with the music, a light touch bringing out the dance rhythms nicely. Finally, there is Beethoven's crowning jewel, the Ninth, in which Jochum may not sound quite as composed  or as radiant as he did in his later EMI recording yet produces an intensity that is evident in every note.

Jochum made these recordings between 1967 and 1969, just a few years before Philips began opening up the Concertgebouw sound to its fullest and richest degree. So don't expect as much of the rich, ambient bloom the orchestra enjoyed in many of Bernard Haitink's recordings of the Seventies and Eighties. Otherwise, there is a sweet naturalness to the Jochum sound, maybe not as smooth in the strings or as deep in the bass as we find in the very best audiophile discs, but good enough. Which is to say there is nothing wrong with these recordings. In fact, they sound better than many new digital efforts, and in the "smaller" symphonies like Nos. 1, 2, 4, and 8, especially, they are superlative. What's more, I compared these new masterings to the individual CDs that Philips issued some years earlier in their low-priced "Concert Classics" series, and I found these newer discs sounded smoother and plusher to me. Imagination? Probably. There is no indication Philips remastered them. In any case, this is a fine set at any price.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


1 comment:

  1. I just purchased a mint boxset of the LPs and my experience with the Krips Mozart cycle also on Philips is that whstever CD version thdy appeared in, the sound was robbed of presence, inner detail, especially the strings and natural warmth. That's why I went vinyl for this Beethoven cycle which stands shoulder to shoulder with the Krips Mozart. Cheers David


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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.

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For over 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 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.

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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.

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