Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (SACD review)
I was talking to a friend recently who reminded me that as time goes on things may evolve and grow different, but they don't necessarily get better. Conductors fit into this category, too. Not all of the great conductors of the past necessarily got any better with age than they had been; indeed, some of them simply grow old and stodgy. But thank goodness we have recordings to preserve the great ones in their prime, such being the case with Sir Neville Marriner and his wonderful 1970 recording of the Beethoven First and Second Symphonies.
We take for granted today a small chamber orchestra playing early Beethoven, often on the same period instruments Beethoven had in mind. But do we recognize that Sir Neville was among the first persons actually to effect something like this with his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields? By paring down what had become traditionally big-scale orchestral music, with often inflated interpretations for full orchestras, Marriner was able to show us the grace and inner beauty of the composer's first two symphonic efforts, if on modern instruments.
I had not heard Marriner's recordings of these works in years before listening to them again on this 2003 PentaTone remastering, and I was amazed at how well they held up, comparing to any recordings of these pieces by any conductor at any price. Not only do the two symphonies come off as elegant and refined, as we would expect of Sir Neville, but they are wholly charming, flexible, supple, enchanting, exciting, and exhilarating as well. These early symphonies may not match what the great composer had in store for us next with his monumental Third Symphony, but Marriner renders these first two of Beethoven's symphonic works as both felicitous extensions of the Classical age and clear precursors of the Romantic era.
The sound holds up equally well, too. Recorded initially by Philips in quadraphonic, the company only released them on LP in two-channel stereo. Yet here they are available, as usual with PentaTone, on a hybrid SACD stereo/multichannel disc in both two and four-channel sound. What's more, the PentaTone engineers remastered them from the original tapes, and they sound at once smooth, spacious, transparent, warm, and natural. I liked almost everything about this disc and its performances, and even after more than four decades they can stand alongside the best available in this repertoire.
To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here:
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.