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