Sometimes, maybe once in a decade, maybe once in a lifetime, a confluence of great solo artists, a great conductor, and a great orchestra produces a genuinely instant classic. Such was the case when violinist David Oistrakh, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and pianist Sviatoslav Richter performed Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in 1969 with Maestro Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s hard to imagine this performance of the Triple Concerto ever being topped, given of the sheer magnitude of the talent involved. What’s more, it continues to be one of the best-recorded versions of the music you’ll find, and this Hi-Q XRCD release remastered and manufactured by JVC makes it just that much better.
Although Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in C major for piano, violin, cello and orchestra, Op. 56 (1804), never impressed critics as much as his violin and piano concertos did, concertgoers have long enjoyed it for its delicious melodies and memorable tunes, especially its soaring first movement and sweet Largo. In an impassioned reading from three of the twentieth-century’s greatest musicians and one of its most-celebrated conductors, the piece couldn’t fail. The music is, as you probably know, actually a kind of orchestrated chamber trio, a sinfonia concertante where the several instruments oppose the orchestra and each other, a style that had passed out of vogue by Beethoven’s time but one into which Beethoven injected new life.
The Berlin Philharmonic sounds, as always, magnificent, and Karajan avoids glamorizing or over-romanticizing the score. When the cello, the violin, and then the piano make their entrance in the first movement, we can see immediately this going to be a gentle, relaxed Triple Concerto, with no want of beauty or expression. The performance is responsive and spacious, yet we can still appreciate the full force of the great orchestra making itself known, reminding us that no matter how easygoing the interpretation may be, it’s still an interpretation on the grandest scale. You’re not going to get this kind of sound from a chamber ensemble or a period-instruments group.
As to the soloists, remarkably, they play as though they had worked together for years. None of the three men attempts to upstage the others, and their instruments complement one another perfectly, almost producing three variations of the same instrument (or four if you count the orchestra, which also blends in flawlessly). Naturally, the cello most often takes the lead, yet Rostropovich never actually dominates; it’s a genuinely shared experience.
The second-movement Largo is as meltingly beautiful as any you’ll hear, big and bold yet brief, hushed, and to the point. The fluidity of the playing seems almost magical. This movement flows seamlessly into the finale, which is as lively, rhythmic, and graceful as you could want. It’s a recording that at the end you want to stand up and applaud, even cheer, it’s that good.
In terms of sound, you would expect it to be good or JVC would not have remastered and manufactured it, EMI would not have licensed it to Resonance Recordings, and Hi-Q would not be distributing it. Although it still won’t satisfy the needs of every audiophile, it does, indeed, sound good. It sounded good in its original EMI form, and it sounds good newly remastered.
EMI producer Peter Andry and audio engineer Allen Stagg made the recording at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, in 1969. They captured a wide dynamic range, so wide, in fact, that the opening passage may tempt you to turn up the gain. Don’t. The volume soon rises startlingly, along with some solid transient impact. Instrument separation is excellent, transparency in the somewhat robustly thick midrange is nevertheless quite good, and depth and air are more than adequate.
Obviously, I compared the new Hi-Q/JVC XRCD24/K2 24-bit super-analog remaster to EMI’s own remastering in their mid-priced “Great Recordings of the Century” series. Switching out the two discs between separate CD players (Sony and Yamaha), matching their volume, and playing them simultaneously for instant comparisons, I found in each instance that the Hi-Q disc sounded a touch warmer and smoother, while also being a bit more crisply detailed, tauter, and better focused. While the differences were not, however, as dramatic as I’ve heard on some other XRCD’s, on good playback equipment the differences are at least a noticeable improvement. Then, too, Hi-Q/JVC package the disc in a slick, attractive Digipak container with bound inner note pages.
The question, of course, is whether the Hi-Q disc is worth its considerably higher asking price. Is it really that much better than the regular EMI release? It is, after all, the very same performance you can buy much cheaper on EMI, and no amount of sonic improvement is going to change that. What’s more, the EMI disc adds the Brahms Double Concerto for good measure, making it an even greater value. No, anyone interested in spending over a dollar per minute on the Hi-Q disc has to own playback equipment worthy of doing it justice and, of course, really has to like the Beethoven piece to begin with. Then, like everything in life, one has to weigh the merits of the product. If you want the very best and are willing (and able) to pay for it, you go for the best. If you are a person of more modest means or with a modest playback system, you may want to stick with the regular EMI product, which is still plenty good.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: