Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral" (HQCD review)

Also, Fidelio Overture. Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HQCD374.

Quite a while ago--in the Seventies, actually--I compiled a magazine article on the favorite recordings of audiophile friends and acquaintances. I asked each of several dozen music critics, hi-fi store owners, and audiophiles to send me their lists of five-to-ten favorite LP's, and it somewhat surprised me that the final list I put together contained several references to Fritz Reiner's Beethoven Sixth for RCA. It surprised me because although I had always admired the performance, I had never thought the recording was very good. Some years later, things changed.

The first time I heard Reiner's recording of the Sixth, it was on RCA's first LP. It didn't sound good. A few years later RCA reissued it on a lower-priced LP, and it sounded even worse, this time with surface noise. Around 1990 or so, RCA released the recording on CD, and I had high hopes. Well, at least the noise had disappeared, but as I remember it still sounded rather thin and vague to me. By the late Nineties I had high hopes that RCA would remaster the recording in their "Living Stereo" CD series, but that didn't happen (or if it did, it escaped my attention). Then came JVC to the rescue in 2002 with an XRCD audiophile remaster. Finally, I could hear the performance in good, high-quality sound. The only problem was the price of the disc: very costly and out of the reach of a lot of listeners.

Now, HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) has come out with their remaster, sounding almost as good as the JVC but at half or less the cost. HDTT offer a full range of physical product and digital downloads in a variety of formats from the HQCD I reviewed to FLAC, DSD 64 and 128, DXD 24 bit/352.8 kHz, 24bit/192kHz, 24bit/96kHz, CD's, DVD's, you name it. Phew! Something for everybody, and still at prices lower than the hard-to-get JVC product.

Anyway, let's look at the performance, which Reiner led in 1961. Critics often accused Reiner of being too strict with his tempos (he was certainly a strict disciplinarian when it came to leading an orchestra), but here we see no signs of that. While he keeps things moving along at a healthy clip, it's true, there's also a good deal of flexibility in his control. The first-movement Allegro, for instance, is quick and taut but unhurried, too ("ma non troppo," as Beethoven indicates). These are "cheerful impressions upon arriving in the countryside," after all, and that's the way Reiner carries it off--cheerfully.

Under Reiner the second-movement "Scene by the Brook" is properly bucolic and serene, a lovely day in the peace and quiet of rural fields, woods, and streams. When the peasants carry on their merrymaking in the third movement, they do so with a minimum of riotous rambunctiousness. This is no drunken orgy but a group of friends and neighbors enjoying one another's company in gaiety and dance. As such, Reiner holds a fairly tight rein on the rhythms, allowing them to develop and open up smoothly and naturally.

Finally, we come to the storm that briefly opens up in the afternoon and the "Shepherd's Hymn of Thanksgiving" that follows the outburst. Again, Reiner handles both extremes with elegance, power, and restraint. The storm is aptly explosive, and the hymn is pleasantly optimistic, though not exactly inspirational. Indeed, it is only in this final section that I find Reiner just a little too rigid, but his ending is nevertheless in full accordance with everything that's gone before.

For me, there have long been only three top choices in the "Pastoral Symphony": Karl Bohm's genial performance with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG; Bruno Walter's happily assertive rendering with the Columbia Symphony, now on Sony; and Reiner's under review. For secondary alternatives to these, one might consider the more leisurely views of Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia or Eugen Jochum and the London Symphony, both on EMI. But, really, Reiner's is as good as or better than any of them.

For a bonus (not found on the JVC disc), we get Reiner's interpretation of Beethoven's Fidelio Overture. It's a straightforward, almost austere, but surely authoritative reading. It reminds me of Reiner's handling of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: an ardent, no-holds-barred account; an old-fashioned locomotive blazing down the tracks at full steam, yet always under perfect management.

The talented RCA team of producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton recorded the music in April 1961 at Chicago Symphony Hall, and HDTT transferred it to the HQCD I reviewed from an RCA 4-track tape in 2014. First I listened to the entire symphony on my primary Sony CD player. Afterwards, I put the JVC XRCD I mentioned earlier into my Yamaha machine, adjusted the two discs for the same gain, and compared the HDTT and JVC products side-by-side.

At first during the comparison, I'd swear I couldn't hear any differences. Then, as my ears became more attuned to the sound of the two discs I began hearing subtle distinctions. The HDTT seemed very slightly softer, warmer, more rounded; the JVC marginally clearer, cleaner, better focused. Further along I began to wonder if the JVC wasn't producing a wider dynamic range; it did sound a tad louder to me at certain points. So, I took a decibel meter and measured the variance between the softest and loudest passages on both discs; sure enough, the JVC did show a decibel or two more range. But these differences were so small that unless I had had the two discs playing next to one another, I would never have guessed that they weren't identical.

Again, I want to emphasize the price differential of the two albums: If you can find the JVC product, it will set you back anywhere from $50 to $150. The HDTT will cost you anywhere from $8 to $36, depending on the format you choose. That is a real difference, and the HDTT disc will sound big, full, natural, detailed, transparent, and dynamic. Sounds like a deal to me for a practically unbeatable performance. Nice cover picture, too.

For further information on the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.

JJP

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

2 comments:

  1. Don't forget Ormandy and Scherchen.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I agree with you. To your selection of wonderful recordings I would add Ormandy (!) and Scherchen.

    ReplyDelete

John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa