Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 6 (SACD review)

Marek Janowski, WDR Symphony Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 809.

Can a classical music fan really have too many recordings of the Beethoven Fifth and Sixth Symphonies? They are possibly the most popular pieces of music ever written and have probably been heard by more people over the past two hundred years than anything by Elvis or the Beatles. But, still, more recordings? If you're like me, you no doubt already have a armload of favorites on your shelves: for me it's Kleiber, Reiner, and Bohm in the Fifth; Reiner, Bohm, Walter, Klemperer, and Jochum in the Sixth.

So what's the big draw with this new recording from Marek Janowski and the WDR Symphony Orchestra (the German Radio Orchestra, Cologne) on Pentatone? Well, it's an SACD in stereo and multichannel, for what that's worth to you. Perhaps more important, it's one of the few pairings of these two famous symphonies on a single disc. Fact is, most record companies don't like putting them on one disc because they're popular enough on their own to sell twice as many copies. Moreover, the two symphonies together usually don't fit on a single CD. But Janowski takes them at such a brisk pace, they take up only seventy-three minutes together.

Of course, these quick tempos brings up another question: Should they be played this fast? We all know that Beethoven's own tempo markings using the newfangled metronome of the day are at odds with the traditional way conductors often play Beethoven. Unless the music director is conducting a historically informed performance and/or a period-instruments performance, the tempo choices are customarily personal decisions rather than rigid metronome markings, and these decisions have varied considerably over the years, providing the listener with a wide variety of choices and an even wider variety of favorites. This would discount, too, the fact that some musical scholars mistrust the accuracy of Beethoven's metronome. What I'm saying here is, Janowski's readings are speedy, and you may or may not take to them, especially the pedestrian nature of his "Pastorale."

The pairing of the Fifth and Sixth does make a lot of sense, though. Beethoven himself coupled them, along with other premieres, for a monumental concert in 1808. (What would any music lover of today give to have attended that concert, with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Choral Fantasy, and others?) They're among the best music ever written. And they make excellent contrasts: the daringly dramatic Fifth and the lyrically pictorial Sixth. So, whatever, it's nice to have them back-to-back.

Marek Janowski
Janowski's rapid pace works best in the Fifth Symphony, which opens the program. He's not as fast as, say, Roger Norrington (EMI, Virgin, Erato) who tried with the London Classical Players to follow Beethoven's metronome markings as scrupulously as possible. Janowski is closer to Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA), although while Reiner seems thrilling, Janowski seems merely...fast. Now, that's not to say Janowski isn't exciting. His performance just seems more prosaic than Reiner's, despite the similarity of tempos. Those opening knocks of fate, for instance, lose a little something under Janowski when he bangs them out so quickly.

The second-movement Andante works best, although it, too, appears a touch commonplace next to Reiner. Nevertheless, it builds momentum as it moves along, leading nicely into the concluding Scherzo and subsequent finale, which blaze forth appropriately, though not quite memorably. The whole performance struck me as too rigid to be entirely memorable or uplifting.

It's Janowski's handling of the Symphony No. 6, the "Pastorale," though, that bothered me a little. Here, the conductor's penchant for hewing a mite too closely to Beethoven's metronome seems to drain the music of much of its charm. This is most apparent when Janowski continues in the first movement to rigidly conform to unchanging tempos, content to push forward without much contrasting feeling.

Then Janowski throws in an almost shockingly traditional "Scene by the Brook." He takes it smoothly, flowingly, and invests it with something like its old delights. Likewise with the "Merry Gathering of Country Folk," although here I thought the conductor missed something of the movement's humor by doing it up too inflexibly. It's like the old storytelling maxim: Show, don't tell. Janowski spends more time telling and not enough time showing. The notes are all there in the right places, but they convey precious few of Beethoven's picturesque subtleties.

And so it goes. I'd say if you already have favorite recordings of these two popular symphonies, you might just want to hang on to them and perhaps listen to Janowski's readings to confirm your long-held opinions.

Producers Seigwald Butow, Renaud Loranger, and Sebastian Stein and engineer Arnd Coppers recorded the music at Kolner Philharmonie, Germany in September 2018. They recorded the music in hybrid SACD, so the listener can play it in two-channel stereo or multichannel from the SACD layer (using an SACD player) or in two-channel stereo from the CD layer using a regular CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD.

As always with an SACD, there is an enormous dynamic range, so watch your volume knob. The frequency response is a tad aggressive in the lower treble, making things somewhat harsh at times. Deep bass is not particularly prodigious, and the upper bass fails to mitigate the slightly forward quality of the upper regions. Orchestral depth is fine, too, if a bit on the one-dimensional side. Actually, it's a sound that rather complements Janowski's assertive performances. It just doesn't come across quite the way it might live in a concert hall.

JJP

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

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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 Jon 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

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.

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