Beethoven: Symphonies 5 & 7 (SACD review)

Andrew Manze, NDR Radiophilharmonie. Pentatone PTC 5186 814.

Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, and over half of them have become among the world's most-popular classical pieces: Nos. 3, 5, 6, 7, and 9. So it's always a welcome treat when we get two of these well-loved classics on the same disc, Nos. 5 and 7 from the NDR Radiophilharmonie and its Chief Conductor Andrew Manze. It's also a treat to have the recording done up in Super Audio CD processing from Pentatone. Of course, in so crowded a field, there is a lot of worthy competition, so Manze isn't alone, nor is his performance so different from the rest as to automatically warrant a purchase. But the buyer could do worse.

Andrew Manze, incidentally, specialized for many years in repertoire from the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries as the Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music from 1996 to 2003 and as the Artistic Director of the English Concert, both period-instrument groups. Since 2006 he has been the Principal Conductor of Sweden's Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra and now Germany's NDR Radiophilharmonie, who play on modern instruments. As I've said before, it makes no difference; Manze brings with him the adventurous sensibility of a period-instrument conductor, and, again, we could do worse.

The program begins with the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, which Beethoven premiered in 1808, having worked on it over the course of some four years. He premiered it in the famous concert that also included the premieres of the Sixth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Choral Fantasy, among other things, a concert lasting over four hours and conducted by Beethoven himself. Music historians point out that Beethoven once wrote "I want to seize fate by the throat; it will never bend me completely to its will." Further, in reference to the beginning of the Fifth's first movement he remarked to a friend, "Thus Fate knocks at the door!"

Andrew Manze
Despite Maestro Manze's background in historically informed performances, his interpretation of the Fifth is not particularly speedy, meaning he did not scrupulously follow Beethoven's metronome markings. Indeed, Manze's timings for each movement are within a few seconds of Carlos Kleiber's celebrated Vienna Philharmonic recording on DG. Speaking of which, DG combined the same two symphonies on their disc that we get here, so comparisons are inevitable. Frankly, while Manze's reading is more than adequate in every way, I found greater spark in Kleiber's account. That said, Manze does impart a good sense of urgency throughout the performance, building the big climaxes with gusto and relieving the tensions with care. He never loses the rhythmic pulse of the music. Still, there may not be enough of a difference in Manze's approach to the score from what dozens of other fine conductors have done before him, so it probably isn't for the Fifth alone that one might want this album.

Which brings us to the Seventh. Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 between 1811 and 1812. Compared to the Fifth, the Seventh is a lighter, livelier, more sparkling piece of music, a work that one of its many admirers, composer Richard Wagner, called the "apotheosis of the dance" because of its sprightly rhythms.

It's in the Seventh that Manze shines. Under his direction, the music does, indeed, dance, even sings. It's a scintillating performance that abounds with good cheer. It is perhaps not as warm an account as that under Sir Colin Davis (EMI) or as meticulous as under the aforementioned Kleiber, but it actually sounds as though Manze is having fun directing the music. The score comes alive with dash, élan, and bounce, the way we might expect to hear it from Sir Thomas Beecham or Nicholas McGegan, and I mean that as high praise. Even the usually dour second-movement set of variations that under many conductors comes off sounding like a funeral march here radiates a notably sunny eloquence. Then it's on to the playful scherzo and lofty, riveting finale. In all, it's an impressive Seventh and one worthy of recommendation.

Producers Renaud Loranger and Matthias Llkenhans and engineer Daniel Kemper recorded the symphonies at the Groser Sendesaal des NDR Landesfunkhaus Hanover, Germany in January and March 2019. They made it for playback via a Super Audio CD player in hybrid SACD multichannel and two-channel stereo and via a regular CD player in two-channel stereo. I listened in SACD two-channel stereo.

We get good, clean sound here, with a moderate amount of orchestral width and depth and a fine sense of ambient hall bloom. Dynamics, too, are good, if modest. I would have liked a bit more range and impact, but these qualities are here not unlike most recordings of Beethoven symphonies. Clarity is good, as well as frequency balance, although bass and treble extension seemed fairly ordinary. To be fair, however, I found the recording quality of the Seventh a tad better than the Fifth all the way around. Whatever, I probably expect too much from an SACD recording, I don't know. Suffice it to say that there's hardly anything one can criticize about the sound of either symphony.


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