Beethoven: Symphonies No. 6 & No. 8 (CD review)

Douglas Boyd, Manchester Camerata. Avie AV2242.

Douglas Boyd and the Manchester Camerata conclude their Beethoven cycle on Avie with these live recordings of the Sixth "Pastoral" and Eighth Symphonies. Having only heard one other disc in the Boyd series, I can't say the results entirely disappointed me, although I'm not too keen on his quick-paced yet fairly cautious readings, either.

Of all Beethoven symphonies, I'm guessing there are probably more folks who love the "Pastoral" best of all than any of the others, although certainly the Third, Fifth, and Ninth are right up there. I'm not talking about sheer popularity, understand, where the Fifth and Ninth would no doubt win the day. I'm talking actual love for a piece of music. The Sixth is simply the most loveable of all the symphonies Beethoven wrote. I mean, who can doubt the appeal of the work's continuously happy, bucolic, tranquil, frolicsome qualities? Not even a storm cloud can interrupt this music's playful, joyous charisma. Maybe it's why Disney chose it as one of the highlights of his 1940 animated movie Fantasia.

Also making the piece easily accessible is the fact that it's Beethoven only program symphony, the composer assigning each movement a description. So the music is ready-made to interpret by any listener. However, this programmatic agenda may also make it harder on conductors because they know that listeners are expecting a certain thing, and if they don't give it to them, woe be it to them. Then, too, over the years, practically every conductor on Earth has performed and/or recorded the symphony, which makes it harder still for any new recording to find a place in the hearts of fans. My own choices? Bruno Walter (Sony) almost owns the piece, his final, exuberant stereo recording now probably the most authoritative reading of all. But there are also the genial Karl Bohm (DG) version to consider, the glowing Fritz Reiner (RCA) version, the idyllic Otto Klemperer (EMI) rendition, and the surprisingly joyful Eugen Jochum (EMI); plus a score of others from David Zinman (Arte Nova), Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca), Andre Previn (RCA), Colin Davis (Philips), Tilson Thomas (Sony), Georg Solti (Decca), Andre Cluytens (EMI), Carlo Maria Giulini (EMI), Pierre Monteux (Decca), George Szell (Sony), Ernest Ansermet (Decca), Gunter Wand (RCA), and others too numerous to mention. So where does Douglas Boyd's new realization sneak in, or does it?

The Sixth Symphony begins with an Allegro non troppo (fast, but not too much) that Beethoven describes as "The awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country." Admittedly, Boyd's opening does sound cheerful. It has a light step, a nice bounce, and a zippy gait without sounding frenetic. Although it perhaps loses a little something in overall grace by not slowing down at least occasionally but continuing to forge ahead at all times, it makes up for it in sheer exhilaration.

The second movement Andante molto moto (walking speed, with much motion) the composer calls "The scene at the brook." Here, Boyd could really have relaxed a bit more; there may be too much "motion" and not enough "walking" involved. He moves things along at such a fast clip, it robs the music of some of its easygoing charm.

In the central Allegro, the "Merry gathering of country folk," Boyd shines, his quick tempos raising one's spirits, even if the music hasn't quite the flowing lines of several of the conductors cited above.

Then the "Thunderstorm" goes by in appropriately menacing fashion and fades just as quickly into the final Allegretto (moderately fast), which Beethoven calls the "Shepherd's song: Happy and thankful feelings after the storm." Again, Boyd goes after it full throttle, perhaps following Beethoven's own metronome markings too literally because it's the only time the conductor's impetuosity seems misplaced. Nevertheless, his tempos are flexible enough that the music never becomes too static, and the symphony ends in a most-energetic manner. Still, I would not count Boyd's interpretation in the same league with the elite conductors I so favor.

Because the little Eighth Symphony has a cheerful character, it makes an apt coupling on the disc. As with the Sixth, Boyd adopts a decidedly quick tempo throughout, which doesn't exactly do anything for the more lyrical parts of the score. But at least it keeps the adrenaline flowing. The second-movement Allegretto scherzando comes off best with this approach, leaving the rest of the score to fend for itself.

Avie recorded the music live in January and October of 2009 at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, England. It's among the best live recordings I've heard, miked neither too closely nor too distantly, with excellent transparency and air. It's also very clean, with little noticeable distortion, and well balanced from the upper bass to the lower treble. Dynamics seem a tad constricted at times, though, especially compared to my remastered Blu-Spec CD of the Walter recording from Japanese Sony. However, that may be a trifle unfair to the Avie disc, which does hold its own.

To make the situation all the more agreeable, we hear little or no noise from the audience during the performances, and the Avie engineers cut out any distracting applause.


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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 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.

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