Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (CD review)

Also, Brahms: Violin Concerto. Kyung Wha Chung, violin; Sir Simon Rattle, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 57165 2 1.

Time was you would only get a single major repertoire item on an LP or CD, filled out if needed with one or two shorter pieces. Now, major labels think nothing of coupling the Beethoven Fifth Symphony with the Brahms Violin Concerto. It could have been a sign of the times when EMI released this disc in 2001; the music industry was slumping, and budget discs and remastered older material were the order of the day. The companies were doing anything they could to attract buyers. Here, EMI have given us some of the world's top performers in violinist Kyung Wha Chung, conductor Sir Simon Rattle, and the Vienna Philharmonic. The results are not unexpectedly impressive in many ways, yet they're strangely underwhelming in others.

Much is made in the booklet notes about Rattle performing this live recording of the Beethoven from the Jonathan Del Mar edition of the score, a version that attempts to strip the music of all the barnacles and appendages that conductors added since Beethoven's day to accommodate new instruments and new styles. So it's a kind of "authentic," historical approach but without any period instruments. What this inevitably means is that the tempos are quicker, and certainly Rattle doesn't hold back; the textures are leaner, and despite the rich sonority of the orchestra, they are; and the sound is more transparent. But faster is not always better, and in the first movement, especially, Rattle's hell-bent-for-leather attack soon becomes a bit wearying. Don't get me wrong; it's not that it isn't thrilling because much of it is, and the Vienna Philharmonic continues to sound like one of the world's great ensembles. It's just that the performance becomes a little monotonous at so unvarying a pace, with Rattle showing little enthusiasm for the finer points of the music. However, after the first movement, the rest of the symphony fares better, actually becoming something near traditional by the end. The interpretation is different, to be sure, and rewarding in its own way, but it is still not so electrifying or so exciting as the renditions by, say, Carlos Kleiber (DG) or Fritz Reiner (RCA or JVC).

Sir Simon Rattle
Whatever, the Brahms concerto inhabits a slightly better world, and in at least one instance, a literally different world. Recorded in a studio, Ms. Chung produces an exceptionally exhilarating Brahms Violin Concerto. She storms, she rants, she rages through the monumental opening movement and then concludes it in a heartbreaking episode of sweetness and light. I like what Sarasate remarked when somebody asked him to play the piece; he said he declined on the grounds that he had no intention of listening, violin in hand, while the solo oboe played the only melody in the whole score. Well, the Brahms has never been my favorite concerto, either. In fact, every time I hear it I wonder if the violin is ever going to make its entrance at all. But in Ms. Chung's hands, it sounds rather captivating, at least for a while. She may exaggerate the stormier moments, but she handles the softer passages with such delicacy you can almost forgive her excesses elsewhere.

EMI's sonics are pretty good for a live recording (2000) and even better in the studio (2001). The orchestra sounds leaner than usual in the Beethoven, thanks to the new edition, and the engineers take full advantage of the work's new clarity. The live sound is close but detailed. The stereo spread is wide, yet without leaving any holes in the middle. Ambiance is subtle but adequate for replicating a large environment. And in the concerto Ms. Chung's violin seems almost ideally balanced with the orchestral support. With at least an interesting Beethoven and a fairly nice Brahms, the disc makes a reasonably appealing though not entirely satisfying listening experience.


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

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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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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