Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral" (CD review

Also, Knecht: Le Portrait musical de la nature ou Grande Simphonie. Bernhard Forck, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902425.

The premise of the album is that nothing is created in a vacuum.

It uses the example of one of classical music's most-beloved works, Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral." Did Beethoven's program music, a series of tone poems really, spring entirely from the composer's brain, or did someone else's previous work inspire him? What we know for sure is that Beethoven appreciated a piece of music called Le Portrait musical de la nature ou Grande Simphonie ("The Musical Portrait of Nature or Great Symphony"), written by the German composer and organist Justin Heinrich Knecht (1752-1817) nearly a quarter of a century before Beethoven wrote his Sixth.

A comparison of each composer's movement titles give an idea of how closely they match, at least in spirit:
Beethoven "Pastoral":
1. Awakening of cheerful feelings on arriving in the countryside.
2. Scene by the brook.
3. Merry gathering of countryfolk.
4. Thunder, storm.
5. Shepherds' song. Happy and thankful feelings after the storm.

Knecht: "Le Portrait musical de la Nature":
1. A beautiful landscape where the sun shines, the gentle zephyrs flutter, the streams flow across the valley, birds chirp, a mountain brook trickles babbling from above, the shepherd blows his pipe, the sheep gambol and the shepherdess sings in her sweet voice.
2. The sky suddenly begins to grow dark, all the country around struggles to breathe and takes fright, the black clouds mass, the winds begin to howl, the thunder rumbles from afar and the storm slowly approaches.
3. The storm, accompanied by rushing winds and driving rain, roars with its full force, the treetops rustle, and the waters of the torrent heave with a terrible noise.
4. The storm gradually subsides, the clouds scatter and the sky brightens.
5. Nature, transported by joy, raises its voice to heaven and renders fervent thanks to the Creator in sweet and pleasant songs.

Bernhard Forck
Surely, if Beethoven knew and admired Knecht's piece, the piece must have influenced him. The narratives, or story lines, of both symphonies contain enough similarities that it would be foolish to call it coincidence.

Whatever, maestro Bernhard Forck leads the period-instrument ensemble Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin (Academy for Early Music Berlin) in historically informed performances of the two works, the Knecht, being the earlier of the two, coming first on the disc. Whether or not you enjoy period bands or HIP practices, the pairing offers us new and valuable insights into the history of Beethoven's music.

So, first up is Knecht's Le Portrait musical de la nature ou Grande Simphonie, completed in 1785. It's a little hard for me to assess how well Forck and the Akademie interpret it because, frankly, I had never heard the work before. What I can say is that they play it in a most vivid and colorful manner, probably close to the composer's intentions and with a sweet disposition.

Forck adopts what seem to me fairly restrained tempos, the music moving along in stately, elegant, sometimes sedate but always amiable fashion. One can hear echoes almost immediately of Beethoven's later work, as well as elements of Haydn and Mozart. It is, after all, still a product of the Classical Period, so Forck keeps it within the later stages of the Age of Reason while still maintaining its delightful tone. And certainly the piece is enlightening for illuminating its influence on Beethoven. Of course, as charming as Knecht's music is, it hasn't the wealth of memorable tunes Beethoven devised, so I doubt that Disney will be including it in any future Fantasia III.

Then, there's Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, op. 68 "Pastoral," completed in 1808. Maestro Forck follows Beethoven's metronome markings, so expect it to be faster than a traditional reading. For myself, I no longer care whether a performance may or may not be exactly as the composer intended because I've heard too many recordings where the composer himself has led the orchestra in one of his own works yet I've enjoyed another conductor's interpretation more. The "Pastoral" symphony to me is one of bucolic beauty and frolic, and in my mind to follow Beethoven's markings strictly can sometimes upset the serenity of much of the piece. My preferences are no doubt based on the older, more traditional performances I've known for so long, like the recordings of Karl Bohm (DG), Bruno Walter (Sony), Fritz Reiner (RCA, JVC, HDTT), Otto Klemperer (EMI, Warner), and Eugene Jochum (Philips and EMI, Warner), to name a few.

But I digress. What about Forck's period-instrument performance? As I say, Forck adheres closely to Beethoven's tempo markings, coming within a second or two of Roger Norrington's historically informed performance with the London Classical Players (EMI/Warner). So, if you admire Norrington's reading, you'll find Forck about the same, and if you already have Norrington's recording, you may find the album of value mainly for the Knecht curiosity. But for the Beethoven alone, I'd have to say Forck's reading too rigidly adheres to the composer's metronome, sucking a lot of the life out of the piece and making it sound rather mechanical. There is little of the light, airy geniality the conductor put into the Knecht.

Rene Moller of Teldex Studio Berlin recorded the music in June 2019. The sonics have a nice cohesive sound, not entirely transparent but of a whole. Played too softly, it tends to appear muffled, but at a moderate level, one approximating a concert volume at mid hall, it can sound realistic enough. The timpani show up well, even though the dynamic impact is not always as strong as one might like. It's unobjectionable sound but not in the audiophile class of absolute clarity.

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