Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (SACD review)

Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. PentaTone Classics 5186 118.

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.

JJP

To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here:


3 comments:

  1. "The late Sir Neville Marriner"? I'm sure that he is still with us.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Anon. I noticed that error this morning. Apparently, I was writing up this review at the same I was writing about the late Sir Colin Davis. Proves I can't think and breath at the same time. :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sadly, the passing of Sir Neville Marriner was reported this morning.

    ReplyDelete

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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa