Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 6, 7 & 8 (SACD review)

Rafael Kubelik, Orchestre de Paris, Wiener Philharmoniker, Cleveland Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 250 (2-disc set).

At about the time I began collecting records as a kid in 1954, the recording industry coincidentally introduced stereo to the world. So you could say stereo and I grew up together. And during those early years, it seemed like Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996) was everywhere. Month after month he appeared to be recording with a different orchestra somewhere in the world, leading the likes of the Chicago Symphony, the Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and, of course, the Czech Philharmonic, among others.

On the present reissue album, Maestro Kubelik conducts three different orchestras (Orchestre de Paris, Wiener Philharmoniker, and Cleveland Orchestra) in repertoire he must have recorded a dozen times each. OK, I exaggerate, but you get the point. Practice makes perfect, I suppose, and these remastered DG recordings come to us from a high point in his career--1973-75--just a few years before ill health began curtailing his work.

The program begins with one of Beethoven's most-cherished compositions, the Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68 "Pastorale" from 1808. It is among the composer's few programmatic pieces, describing as it does a kind of idealized bucolic scene. Beethoven starts it with an "Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside"; continues with a "Scene by the brook"; follows with a "Merry gathering of country folk"; interrupts the proceedings with some brief "Thunder and Storm"; and then concludes tranquilly with a "Shepherd's song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm."

Kubelik leads the Orchestra de Paris in a straightforward, fairly routine interpretation of these events.  In fact, the Sixth seems more casual than I'm used to hearing, not just more leisurely but more sluggish. One could argue that such a relaxed approach is just what the music needs to portray the Arcadian serenity of the countryside, but Kubelik seems to go it one further, making the music appear almost sleep-inducing. For my tastes, I prefer the old standbys from Fritz Reiner (RCA, JVC, or HDTT), Karl Bohm (DG), Bruno Walter (Sony), Otto Klemperer (EMI), and Eugen Jochum (EMI).

Disc two opens with Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92 (1812), which Kubelik performs with the Vienna Philharmonic. The composer considered it one of his best works, and during the premiere the audience demanded an encore of the second movement. In fact, conductors sometimes play the second movement by itself, separate from the rest of the symphony. One admirer, composer Richard Wagner, referred to the work's lively rhythms as the "apotheosis of the dance."

Rafael Kubelik
Here, Kubelik seems a bit more animated than he was in the "Pastorale." The Vienna Phil seems a bit more poised and precise than the Paris Orchestra, with a touch greater richness. By the time the conductor reaches the finale, he's caught fire, and the symphony ends in an appropriate blaze. As nice as Kubelik's recording is, however, I continue to favor the performances of Fritz Reiner (RCA or JVC), Colin Davis (EMI), Nicholas McGegan (PBP), Carlos Kleiber (DG), David Zinman (Arte Nova), Leonard Bernstein (Sony), and Roger Norrington (EMI).

The second disc ends with the Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93 (1812), a piece Beethoven called his "little Symphony in F" because his Symphony No. 6 in F is almost twice as long. The Eighth is cheerful in mood, sometimes loud, but mainly light. It is also the symphony the general public often overlooks, squeezed as it is among the longer, more prominent, and more acclaimed Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth.

Kubelik's handling of the score seems a tad too serious to me, although the second movement has a charming playfulness to it. Overall, though, it never appeared to soar or seem much more than a commonplace reading. Again I preferred several other recordings to Kubelik's, favorite recordings from Roger Norrington (Virgin), David Zinman (Arte Nova), and Eugen Jochum (Philips) in particular.

Deutsche Grammophon recorded the music in Quadraphonic at the Salle Wagram, Paris in 1973; the Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna in 1974; and Severance Hall, Cleveland in 1975. Pentatone remastered it on SACD for multichannel and two-channel stereo playback. I listened in the SACD two-channel mode.

Although the recordings span three different orchestras and halls over a period of three years, the sound is remarkably alike. In the Sixth, it's smooth and fairly clean, with a touch of soft warmth, a clear if sometimes slightly harsh high end, and little deep bass. So it's a bit thin, although it displays a moderately good depth of field and more than adequate room ambience. Perhaps the multichannel would open it up better. In the Seventh the sound appears miked a tad closer, yielding better detail but at the expense of some losing some hall ambience. Then in the Eighth, we get the best of both worlds, with good definition at a reasonable distance from the orchestra, and even a little better dynamic impact and bass response.

JJP

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


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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.

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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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa