Saint-Saens: Symphony No 3 “Organ Symphony” (SACD review)

Also, Poulenc: Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani; Wider: Symphony for Organ No. 5. Christopher Jacobson, organ; Kazuki Yamada, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Pentatone PTC 5186 638.

By John J. Puccio

If you went to the catalogue of classical recordings, I’m sure you’d find that the “Organ” Symphony of Saint-Saens ranks right up there in popularity with the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. It’s that well liked. So it’s inevitable that we get new recordings of it every year. This new one under review is an international affair: the music is, of course, French. The conductor, Kazuki Yamada, is Japanese. The organist, Christopher Jacobson, is American. And the ensemble, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, is the Swiss orchestra co-founded by Ernest Ansermet in 1918. Whether this array of global talent does any better a job of interpreting the music must be left to the individual listener, naturally, but I can tell you after having sat through most of the recordings currently available, the new one does a pretty good job with it.

The French composer, organist, pianist, and conductor Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) wrote his Symphony No. 3 in C-minor, “Organ,” Op. 78, in 1886. It is probably the most-popular thing he ever wrote and, as I say, remains one of the most popular pieces of classical music of any kind.

Saint-Saëns called the work “a symphony with organ,” and he remarked, "I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again." Apparently he knew what he was talking about because even though he lived on for thirty-five more years, he never wrote another symphony, organ or otherwise.

The composer divided the work into two major parts, with two divisions in each part. It’s an odd arrangement, but it essentially works out to a conventional four-movement symphony. What’s more, although most people today know the work as the “Organ Symphony,” Saint-Saens himself labeled it Symphonie No. 3 "avec orgue" (with organ). In fact, the organ only plays a part in two of the four movements, the second and the last. But it makes enough of an impression for folks to remember it.

The first movement has always seemed to me the least distinguished, the least characterful, but Maestro Yamada and the orchestra do the best they can. They establish a sweet, leisurely tempo in this section, which, if anything, leads effectively into the second, slow movement.

The second movement Adagio always reminds me of soft, warm waves flowing over and around one’s body on a tropical beach somewhere. Here’s where the organ (Christopher jacobson, organist) makes its first entry, coming in with what should be huge, gentle, undulating washes of sound. Unfortunately, I didn’t really hear or feel those waves from the organ, which stays remarkably aloof from the proceedings. While it’s not unpleasant, it’s not what I expected, either. Actually, Saint-Saens labels this movement Poco Adagio, or a little bit slow. In other words, not quite as slow as a traditional Adagio. Yet Yamada and his team take it at a pace that seems almost drowsy compared to many other recordings.

The two movements that comprise the finale can be fiery and exhilarating, if not a little bombastic, with the organ blazing the trail. Here, Yamada maintains the unhurried atmosphere he set in the beginning, giving us a relaxed, almost tranquil close. Again, not what I expected and not at all unpleasant, but different. Some listeners will no doubt find the reading lyrically rewarding. However, I found it a far cry from the more electrifying performances by Louis Fremaux and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Warner Classics/EMI), Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony (RCA/JVC), or the steady yet still heady version by Jean Martinon and the National Orchestra of France (EMI or Brilliant Classics), all of which remain my first-choice recommendations.

Coupled with the Symphony are two more organ works by French composers: Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani; and Charles-Maria Widor’s Toccata from his Symphony for Organ No. 5. The Poulenc work seems especially well suited to the understated style of Yamada and Jacobson, and it comes off with an appropriately energetic, yet spiritual and inspirational tone. Well done. As an encore, Jacobson gives the Widor Toccata a good, healthy flourish.

Producer Job Maarse and engineers Erdo Groot and Jean-Marie Geijsen recorded the music at Victory Hall, Geneva, Switzerland in August 2017. They made the recording for hybrid multichannel SACD, two-channel SACD, and two-channel CD playback. I listened in two-channel SACD.

The hall nicely complements the sound of the orchestra, giving it a degree of depth and resonance that some venues lack. The sonics are smooth and natural, not particularly transparent or “audiophile” but lifelike in their presentation. The SACD recording ensures that dynamics are there when needed, both in range and impact, although here, too, it isn’t quite in the audiophile class of clarity but more subtle. The organ makes a different impression on the ears in each of the three works on the disc. It’s restrained and a tad recessed in the Saint-Saens, more aggressive in the Poulenc, and finally comes into its own in the solo Widor piece. Of more important note, the organ is always well balanced with the orchestra, and that’s good to hear.

JJP

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

Classical Music News of the Week, January 30, 2021

Experiential Orchestra: New Beginnings

Experiential Orchestra continues with some mid-winter meditations. This is from Kalun Leung: the view from a window of a frozen world.

How do we un-freeze?
What brings us warmth?
What new beginnings do we feel as so much changes?

View and listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZb7BkQfAWc

--James Blachly, Music Director, Experiential Orchestra

Rochester Philharmonic Appoints Andreas Delfs as Music Director
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) announces the appointment of Maestro Andreas Delfs as its thirteenth music director in the organization's 98-year history. Delfs follows in the footsteps of a long line of distinguished music directors including Erich Leinsdorf, David Zinman, Mark Elder, Christopher Seaman, and Ward Stare.

A native of Flensburg, Germany, and graduate of the Hamburg Conservatory and Juilliard School of Music, Andreas Delfs has established himself as a pre-eminent force in the classical music world and one of the finest conductors of his generation.  He has held chief artistic posts with orchestras in Europe and North America. At the age of 20, he became the youngest-ever Music Director of the Hamburg University Orchestra and Musical Assistant at the Hamburg State Opera. Throughout his 12 seasons as Musical Director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Delfs drew larger audiences to Uihlein Hall, selling out a record 40 concerts there during the 2000-2001 Season. Delfs led the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra as Music Director (2001-2004) and artistic consultant (2004-2006).

To learn more about Maestro Delfs, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iiXLEfQSndk&feature=youtu.be

--Beverley Greenfield, Kirshbaum Associates

Harmonia Mundi Sadly Announces the Death of Eva Coutaz
Eva Coutaz (1943-2021) directed the production of the Harmonia Mundi label for close to thirty years. Born in Wuppertal in 1943, she began her career as an apprentice bookseller in her native Germany. After obtaining her professional degree, she went to Provence in France to confirm for herself her idyllic vision of the region. After briefly working as an au pair, she became a bookseller and worked for several years in a great university bookstore in the Midi.

She began her career with Harmonia Mundi in 1972 as a press officer and quickly became interested in organizing concerts and recordings, eventually taking over that position. Out of love for the music, she gained the skills that would permit her to excel in this work.

She produced more than 800 recordings with world famous musicians who all who cemented the reputation of harmonia mundi. From the start, it was easy for her to embrace the spirit of a company that placed quality over profit.

After the death of label founder Bernard Coutaz, in February 2010, she became Chairman and CEO of Harmonia Mundi until its acquisition by [PIAS] in 2015. After putting the new team in place, she retired by slow steps in 2016, making way for Christian Girardin, who is now in charge of production.

--Sarah Folger, [PIAS] America

Pachelbel for Three Cellos! Online Concert
Space Time Continuo presents Pachelbel’s Magnificat Fuges, original transcriptions for three cellos. Online: Friday, February 19, 6:00 PM: http://spacetimecontinuo.com/

Pachelbel’s Canon in D is one of the most famous and frequently heard works in the entire classical repertoire. However, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) was very prolific, composing a large body of both sacred and secular works, and was enormously popular during his lifetime--as well as a major influence on J.S. Bach. After hearing Pachelbel’s Magnificat Fugues for organ--which number over 90 in all, each just one to two minutes long--cellist Amanda Keesmaat was inspired to arrange a number of the fugues for three cellos. Keesmaat, director of Space Time Continuo, invited fellow cellists Elinor Frey and Camille Paquette-Roy to join her in performing these premiere arrangements, along with Luc Beauséjour (organ) and Sylvain Bergeron (archlute) for additional music by Pachelbel, including transcriptions of his Violin Sonatas and, yes, the famous Canon.

--Shira Gilbert PR

Lara Downes Launches Rising Sun Music Celebrating Black Composers
Inspired by her own mixed-race heritage and career-long engagement with diverse musical traditions, pianist Lara Downes creates and curates a new digital recording venture, Rising Sun Music, that sheds a bright light on the music and stories of Black composers over the past 200 years. Featuring a wide range of leading instrumentalists and vocalists (including Ms. Downes) whose work defines the creative energy of this generation and the next, the series presents a new EP of music--each exploring a different theme--to be released the first Friday of every month starting February 5.

Learn more at https://www.laradownes.com/

--Shuman PR

What's Streaming: Classical (Week of February 1–7)
Thursday, February 4 at 2:00 p.m. ET / 8:00 p.m. CET (available for 7 days)
Semyon Bychkov conducts Czech Philharmonic in Bryce Dessner's Concerto for Two Pianos, featuring soloists Katia and Marielle Labèque.
https://www.facebook.com/ceskafilharmonie/

Sunday, February 7 at 4:00 p.m. ET (available for 30 days)
The Gilmore presents Isaiah J. Thompson Quartet.
https://www.thegilmore.org/event/isaiah-j-thompson-quartet/

Sunday, February 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET (available for 23 hours)
James Conlon conducts Puccini’s Tosca in The Met: Live in HD encore broadcast.
https://www.metopera.org/

--Shuman PR

Colburn School Launches "Next Up" Virtual Concert Series
The Colburn School, a renowned performing arts school based in Los Angeles, will showcase its accomplished alumni in “Next Up,” a new virtual concert series that features imaginative programs and unique collaborations created with the online experience in mind. All concerts will be premiered at 7pm; free registration is required at https://www.colburnschool.edu/alumni/next-up-series/.

Saturday, February 13, 2021
Bach’s Goldberg Variations for String Trio

Saturday, March 13, 2021
Eclectic Classical

Saturday, April 10, 2021
Retrouvé: Rediscovering the Past

Saturday, May 8, 2021
Styles and Textures for Solo Clarinet

Saturday, May 29, 2021
Modern and Popular Music Jukebox

For complete details, visit https://www.colburnschool.edu/alumni/next-up-series/

--Lisa Bellamore, Crescent Communications

The Gilmore Announces Festival Fellowship Residency Program
In furtherance of its mission to promote world-class piano performance and to advance the future of the art form, The Gilmore today announced a new career-advancement initiative, The Gilmore Festival Fellowship residency program, which will offer five-day residencies to classical pianists aged 18 or older during the biennial Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, starting in 2022.

Essential, residency-related expenses for Fellows are funded entirely by The Gilmore. Applications opened today--Wednesday, January 27, 2021--and remain open until 11:59 p.m. ET on Friday, October 1, 2021. For further application details, including eligibility requirements, click here: https://www.thegilmore.org/education/gilmore-fellows/

--Lisa Jaehnig, Shuman Associates

Princeton University Concerts Announces Spring Update
On Sunday, March 28 at 3PM (EDT), Princeton University Concerts will present a free, streamed concert with the "Leading Ladies" of classical music who champion instruments often overlooked in the field: accordionist Ksenjia Sidorova, bagpiper Cristina Pato, harpist Bridget Kibbey, and saxophonist Jess Gillam.

For complete details, visit http://www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org/

--Dasha Koltunyuk, Princeton University Concerts

Violinist Yevgeny Kutik Announces “Finding Home: Music from the Suitcase in Concert”
On Thursday, February 11, 2021 at 7pm ET, Russian-American violinist Yevgeny Kutik, known for his “dark-hued tone and razor-sharp technique” (The New York Times), launches “Finding Home: Music from the Suitcase in Concert,” a five-episode docu-recital series filmed at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, MA, based on Kutik’s 2014 album Music from the Suitcase (Marquis Classics).

Each 30-40-minute episode features music performances, including works from the album, interwoven with Kutik’s personal narrative storytelling. Episodes will premiere weekly on Kutik’s Facebook and YouTube channels every Thursday at 7pm ET beginning on February 11 and running through March 11, 2021. Registrants will be emailed the links to watch by 5pm on Wednesdays. Kutik will be available for questions in the chat during the Thursday premieres, and each episode will be available for on-demand viewing until 12pm ET on the following Sunday.

Register to watch all episodes here: http://bit.ly/YevgenyKutikEvents

--Maggie Stapleton, Jensen Artists

American Youth Symphony & A Place Called Home
The American Youth Symphony (AYS) and A Place Called Home (APCH) have joined forces once again to bring classical music to South Central Los Angeles families and the local community.

On Friday, March 5, 2021 at 6:15 p.m., as part of APCH’s Family Film Fridays, AYS will present an interactive pre-show concert event featuring performances by AYS and APCH musicians, a live raffle, and a conducting lesson led by Jessica Bejarano, founder and conductor of the San Francisco Philharmonic. Following the pre-show concert, guests will be treated to a screening of the animated musical film, Sing. All of the evening’s festivities will take place online and are free and accessible to APCH’s entire membership base, their extended families and invited friends.

Details here: https://www.aysymphony.org/apch-concert/

--Lisa Bellamore, Crescent Communications

Celebrate Love, Life, and Friendship with “Valentines on Demand”
The Washington Chorus (TWC) is helping Cupid deliver messages of love this February. “Valentines on Demand” is a special, customized video that includes a personalized message and song performed by a member of the two-time Grammy award-winning Chorus or a collaborating artist, including soprano Aundi Marie Moore and baritone Damien Geter.

With a diverse catalogue of songs to choose from, including classical, contemporary, jazz and musical theater, you will find the perfect song for that special someone in your life. “Valentines on Demand” start at $21. For more information and to order this unique gift please visit the website: https://thewashingtonchorus.org/

--Amy Killion, Bucklesweet

George Manahan New Music Director Emeritus of American Composers Orchestra
American Composers Orchestra and George Manahan announce that after ten years as Music Director of ACO, Manahan will transition to Music Director Emeritus at the conclusion of his current contract, on July 1, 2021. Since becoming Music Director in 2010, Manahan has led the orchestra in numerous performances at Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Symphony Space, and more, conducting 191 works by 162 composers and premiering 82 new pieces in concert. Manahan is the third music director of ACO since its inception in 1977, following founding conductor Dennis Russell Davis (1977-2002) and Steven Sloane (2002-2010).

ACO Artistic Director Derek Bermel said, “George is a phenomenal musician whose professionalism, skills, and musical insight have earned him the love and respect of our orchestra, composers, soloists, and audiences. His leadership has always kept ACO in the most capable of hands. Personally, I am extraordinarily grateful and proud to have collaborated with this consummate artist and educator whose work spans the gamut of symphonic music, opera, and beyond. I look forward to continuing to work with George in his role as Music Director Emeritus.”

Full details here: https://americancomposers.org/2021/01/29/george-manahan-to-transition-to-music-director-emeritus-of-american-composers-orchestra/

--Christina Jensen, Jensen PR

Sony Music Masterworks Announces New Label XXIM Records
Sony Music Masterworks today announced the launch of XXIM RECORDS, an all-new imprint focused on the development of innovative, progressive instrumental music around the world.

Pronounced ‘Twenty-One M’, XXIM features a bespoke roster of a new generation of artists whose work explores and integrates neo-classical, post-rock, electronic, and ambient sounds among others.

The label is based in Berlin with additional A&R support in New York and arrives with an impressive, international line up of highly talented musicians. It includes compelling newcomers EYDÍS EVENSEN, an Icelandic pianist and composer, and UÈLE LAMORE, a Franco-American composer, conductor, producer and arranger, as well as the genre-bending Icelandic band HUGAR and the Berlin electro-acoustic duo STIMMING X LAMBERT.

For more information, visit https://www.sonymusicmasterworks.com/

--Larissa Slezak, Sony Music Masterworks

Call for Scores
PARMA’s latest Call for Scores is launching this week, with a fully-subsidized performance opportunity, and I was hoping to share the news with members of your organization.

This call is for works for solo violin, to be performed by Concertmaster of the Subotica Philharmonic, with special consideration given to pieces or composers with unrealized premieres or concerts within the last year. A selected work will be performed in virtual concert to be presented and promoted on the PARMA Live Stage.

The Call for Scores website URL is https://www.parmarecordings.com/call-for-scores/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=Classical Candor&utm_campaign=Solo+Violin+CFS+2021

--Jacob Smith, PARMA Records

7/5 of Beethoven: Part 2 (CD/SACD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

In Part 1, the focus was on three recordings of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 that featured smaller orchestras (~60 members) playing original instruments. For each of those recordings, the conductor and/or musicologist provided liner notes that explained how the use of such an ensemble was a key element in their quest to reproduce what they considered to have been Beethoven’s true musical intentions.

Here in Part 2, the focus is on four recordings performed by modern orchestras (~100 members) playing modern instruments. Even though in this case none of the conductors needs to justify why he is employing a small orchestra playing original instruments, all of the liner notes offer insights into what the conductors were trying to accomplish, typically citing a desire to reveal an authentic insight into what Beethoven had in mind as he composed this symphonic masterpiece; two of the conductors offering their own extended commentary.

As in Part 1, the conductors are presented in alphabetical order. Here we go…     

Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Reference Recordings FR-718SACD (SACD) (with Symphony No. 7, released in 2015)

In the liner notes for his recording, the Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck (b. 1958) offers several pages of thoughts and commentary on both the historical trends in the performance of Beethoven and his own thoughts about the Fifth and Seventh symphonies and his approach to performing and recording them. Early in his remarks, he points out some of the different approaches to performing the symphonies that have evolved over the years and then observes that “there exists an unbelievable amount of sound documents that enable us to have insights into the ‘supermarket’ of these various interpretations. We know much more today -- and interpretations can even come face to face and confront each other. I personally had the luxury as a musician to play under the baton of very different conductors -- Bernstein, von Karajan, Kleiber, Harnoncourt, Muti, Abbado, among many others. Additionally, I hesitated for a long time before conducting the Beethoven Symphonies. Of course, I studied them all, but I waited to program them as it was first necessary to organize my impressions and then have a certain distance from a variety of influences. There were also still the questions to address which every conductor must answer with each work: Firstly, what is Beethoven's will and what are the peculiarities of the piece? Under what circumstances was it composed? At the time that Beethoven composed the work, what was new? What should happen in a particular way? Which tradition, if any, should be followed? Is it possible to find something revelatory?” He then goes on to explain in more detail his approach to both symphonies in an essay well worth reading should you ever come across this release.

Something you notice immediately about this performance is that the famous opening notes, those eight immortal notes that just about anybody can hum, are played slowly. Quite slowly, in fact. Honeck justifies his interpretation by writing that “the use of the more deliberate tempo gives the opening bars a grandiose weight, power and vehemence. For me, it was essential to capture the greatest possible drama with this first statement so as to depict the heroic character of the movement.” To my ears, at least, his way with the opening seems an affectation, although yes, it does make things seem more dramatic.

Honeck brings a great deal of expressiveness to his performance, which were recorded in concert, with subtle shifts of tempo and phrasing. His account sounds personal, but not idiosyncratic. In that respect it is something like the Currentzis recording reviewed in Part 1, but Honeck comes across as less rigid in his approach than Currentzis, more interested in communicating the beauty and glory that he finds in the score rather than exhibiting his desire to master it. Again, I would point you Honeck’s extensive liner notes, which are well worth reading, where he explains his approach to performing this music in some detail.

As you might expect from Reference Recordings, the engineers (Soundmirror) have captured it all in detailed yet spacious sound, vivid and dynamic. This is an excellent recording, well worth an audition.

Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic. Deutsche Grammophon 447 400-2. (CD) (with Symphony No. 7, LP was released in 1975, CD in 1995)

Since its release in the mid 1970s, this recording by the late Austrian conductor Carlos Kleiber (1930-2004) has been considered by many to be the gold standard for recordings of the Beethoven Fifth. It has long been my go-to recording, which I first owned on vinyl. However, I will confess that I had not listened to it very much over the past few years, mainly because I simply have not listened to the Fifth all that much over the past few years. (So many CDs, so little time…) However, as I started pulling together CDs from my collection that I planned to use for this survey, I was startled to discover that I owned three copies. A true embarrassment of riches!  

In contrast to the majority of the recordings in this survey, the skimpy liner notes for the Kleiber do not feature any words from the conductor himself. Rather, there is a brief essay by music critic Peter Cosse, who begins by writing, “in the world of recording there are three kinds of artist. One kind regards the medium as a permanent opportunity to place themselves and their musical comrades before the public. They treat discs as pages in an audio diary. A second, minute group turns its back. They refuse to document big musical occasions, insist on the impossibility of repeating the experience, and thus place all their faith in their listeners’ memories. A third group, also a rather small one, does not dismiss the medium altogether but is very, very choosy. Carlos Kleiber is one of these last… His all too infrequent ‘Philharmonic Subscriptions Concerts in Vienna have each and every one set the musical world ablaze, and, like these performances of Beethoven here, left it in a state of enlightened, redeeming enchantment.”

For those music lovers who may be unfamiliar with Kleiber, I should point out that he is widely regarded as a legendary conductor, one of the all-time greats. One of the reasons you may not have heard of him, though, is that he made only nine studio recordings. That’s right, nine. And two of them are included on this CD.  

Having been impressed by some of the more modern releases that I have come across over the past couple of years by orchestras both large and small in recorded sound of impeccable quality, I found myself wondering how well the venerable Kleiber version would hold up against such formidable competition. In brief, it holds up pretty darn well. Like Honeck, Kleiber seems to bring a personal touch to the score, more flexible in tempo and dynamics than the two conductors listed below. This is epic-sounding Beethoven. It is easy to see why so many critics and classical music fans have considered this to be a reference version. It certainly seems quite capable of leaving listeners in a “state of enlightened, redeeming enchantment.” It has certainly done that for me on occasion.

I was pleasantly surprised to note who well the engineering has held up. It might not be quite as transparent or spacious as the Reference Recordings or Telarc discs, and there is just a touch of hardness from time to time in the massed strings, but overall, it still sounds quite acceptable. Actually, better than acceptable. No, not quite “audiophile quality,” but pretty darn good. Those DG engineers made a lot of recordings in Vienna and obviously knew what they were doing.   

Benjamin Zander, Philharmonia Orchestra. Telarc CD-80471. (CD) (with Symphony No. 7, released in 1999)

English conductor Benjamin Zander (b. 1939) is probably best known to classical music fans with an audiophile bent for his series of Mahler recordings for the Telarc label back in the late 1990s through the early 2000s. This Beethoven release proved to be his only Beethoven recording on Telarc; like the Mahler releases, it includes a bonus disc on which Zander presents a lecture on the music and his approach to the performance. Well known for his strong opinions, he throws down the gauntlet in the liner notes with an attitude similar to that of Currentzis: “It will surely come as a surprise to most listeners that works as familiar as Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies have rarely received performances that realize Beethoven’s stated wishes as to how the music should be played, and that this tradition of ignoring the composer’s intentions began in Beethoven’s own time! It seems that from the very beginning conductors chose to disregard -- or simply didn’t look at -- the metronome marks Beethoven left for his symphonies. In doing so they radically altered the ‘meaning’ of the music and established a tradition of performance that is far removed from what Beethoven seems to have intended… But how did this situation arise? Is there a right and a wrong way of performing this music? Or is its interpretation purely a subjective matter?

Let's take the opening of the Fifth Symphony -- certainly the most famous four notes of music ever penned. If we hear it performed as slowly as it was by such great conductors as Furtwangler, Stokowski, and Klemperer, the music speaks with majesty, force, power, ‘Fate knocking on the door.’ If, on the other hand, we hear it at the tempo indicated both by Beethoven’s Italian direction Allegro con brio and by his metronome marking...it seems driving, violent, impetuous, headlong, as though a gauntlet were being thrown down in defiance. But which is the ‘true’ version? Clearly, when Beethoven was composing that opening he must have had some particular ‘meaning’ or sound in mind. He cannot possibly have heard it both at the slower tempo and at the faster one, and it is unlikely that he was indifferent about the matter -- just as unlikely as that he would have been indifferent about which notes were played. For Beethoven cared so deeply about the tempi at which his works were performed that, according to his friend Anton Schindler, whenever he heard about a performance of one of them, ‘his first question invariably was: “How were the tempi?” Every other consideration seemed to be of secondary importance to him’ In fact, Beethoven cared so much about such issue of tempo that he left more detailed instructions on the subject than did virtually any other composer… So why should his tempo indications for the symphonies have been so rarely observed in performance? Most conductors have rejected the indicated tempi because they consider them too fast. Ironically, though, both the final movements of the Fifth and Seventh are traditionally played faster than Beethoven’s indicated tempo, demolishing the argument that since all his tempi are too fast, it is reasonable to assume his metronome was broken. Moreover Beethoven’s letters make it clear that he took great pains to have his metronome in good working order.”

Convinced yet? As you can see, Zander makes quite the case for fast tempos, and as you might expect, this is a brisk, energetic reading. At the time of its initial release, it sounded almost maniacally fast, but part of that perception was due to the contrast with more traditional, expansive recordings. Since then, largely spurred by the original instruments/historically informed practice (HIP) recordings of conductors such as Norrington, Gardiner (reviewed in Part 1), and Bruggen, our ears have become more accustomed to brisker Beethoven. In any event, this is an interesting recording. The Telarc engineers did a good job of capturing a spacious sound. Although the performance is fast, it does not otherwise sound willful or eccentric. It just comes across as a well-recorded, fast-paced performance of the Beethoven Fifth.

David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. Arte Nova ANO 496950 (CD) (with Symphony No. 6, released in 1997)

Speaking of Telarc, American conductor David Zinman (b.1936) made some excellent recordings with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on that late lamented label back in the day. I can recall hearing him on some NPR radio program back then, coming across as witty, genial – someone who would be great to just hang with when you needed your batteries recharged. Many classical music fans surely remember – and probably have on their shelves somewhere – his 1992 Nonesuch recording with dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 (“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”), which incredibly went on to sell more than a million copies worldwide. In 1995, he became Music Director of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, with which he soon embarked on a series of Beethoven recordings. In addition to the complete symphonies, he also made excellent recordings of the piano concertos, the violin concerto, and the Missa Solemnis.

Unlike most of the recordings in this survey, there are no remarks by the conductor to accompany this CD. The claim on the cover is that it is the “world premiere recording on modern instruments according to the new Barenreiter edition”. The liner notes do not discuss the symphony or its performance; rather, they discuss the problem of finding the true textual version of the score. One interesting note is that in the back-cover blurb about the orchestra, the size of the Tonhalle Orchestra is said to be 97 members, reminding us that the modern orchestra is more than half again as large as the orchestras of Beethoven’s time.

Zinman conducts a fleet but expressive performance that has been well-captured by the engineering team. Not quite in the same league as the Reference Recordings or the Telarc, but certainly quite decent.  Everything about this release seems to be well-balanced. Nothing seems to come across as overly emphasized, neither in the sound nor in the performance. Although Zinman’s tempi are often close to those of Zander, the Zinman performance never sounds rushed. He never seems to be pushing the orchestra; rather, the energy just seems to flow naturally from the score rather than the conductor. This is truly a wonderful recording. The only drawback is that it may be hard to find, alas, at least on CD.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript: Well, that was fun. At least for me; I hope you got at least a little something out of it. If nothing else, I hope it makes you realize that there are many factors involved in performing and recording a musical composition and many ways to shape a successful interpretation. I hope it inspires you to pick one of your favorite recordings of classical music and compare it to several others, either from your own library, the public library, the collection of a friend, or perhaps by way of a streaming service. Read the liner notes, get comfortable, do some listening, maybe take some notes, listen some more, and see what you think. You may well wind up with more than one favorite recording by the time you are through.

As I wrote in Part 1 of this survey, I found all seven of these recordings to be excellent. I could sit down right now and enjoy any one of them. I own six of them and plan to keep all six. The seventh (Honeck) goes back to the library tomorrow; I have used up my 10 renewals and must finally return it after a couple of months or so. I will probably check it out again, and might even pick up a copy of my own one of these days.

As much as you might want me to, I just can’t pick one favorite. All I can say is that of the three original-instrument recordings from Part 1, the Savall is my favorite, and possibly my favorite of all seven. But possibly not. Of the four modern orchestra recordings, it really is hard to pick a favorite. I am married to the Kleiber (thrice!), I love the Zinman, I have a crush on the Honeck, and will date the Zander from time to time (please don’t tell the Kleiber).

All seven versions have their special points of appeal. The Currentzis sounds great in the car, its exaggerations punching through the tire and wind noise and keeping me energized. The Gardiner is part of a complete set that sounds great and is available at a bargain price. The Savall is truly impressive in terms of both performance and sound; in addition, its physical package is truly first-class. The Honeck sounds amazing, comes with a fine Seventh, and includes detailed liner notes that are quite instructive. The Kleiber is a remarkable performance that is also packaged with a truly excellent Seventh. The Zander is a bracing performance that includes not only an energetic Seventh but a bonus disc in which the conductor discusses the music. And the Zinman just sounds just right. You can’t go wrong with any of them, although you might go a bit astray with the Currentzis.  

Finally, for those who care about such things, here are the timings for all seven recordings.

Mvt

Currentzis

Gardiner

Honeck

Kleiber

Savall

Zander

Zinman

5-1

6:42

6:30

7:11

7:22

7:03

6:23

6:49

5-2

8:40

8:15

9:06

10:00

8:25

8:43

8:45

5-3

4:41

7:12

4:56

5:09

7:46

4:21

7:19

5-4

10:35

9:50

10:08

10:51

11:03

10:40

10:25


KWN

Senfter: Compositions for Two Violins (CD review)

Concerto in C minor for Two Violins and String Orchestra, Op. 40; Ten Old Dances for Two Violins, Op. 91. Aleksandra Maslovaric, violin; Katarina Aleksic, violin; Budapest Symphony Orchestra. Feminae Records CD1901.

By John J. Puccio

These days most people would not recognize the name of German composer Johanna Senfter (1879-1961), even though she wrote some 134 pieces of classical music, eight of them symphonies. Such is life that most of them go forgotten. It was especially hard for a female composer to make much headway in a largely male-dominated musical world. So, enter Feminae Records, a company dedicated to promoting the work of female composers, many of them long neglected.

Although not a lot is known about Senfter beyond her music, she did leave behind one revealing quote: “Listen and play my music, then you understand me.”

As the founder of Feminae Records, violinist Aleksandra Maslovaric, writes at the Feminae Web site, “Women have been making and composing music for centuries, millennia even! We believe that revealing and sharing this outstanding repertoire--balancing the ‘playing field,’ if you will--is a critical part of ensuring that concert music has genuine value and meaning for generations to come. Therefore, Feminae Records will continue to produce and release works by great female composers, both forgotten and yet-to-be-discovered. Our sons and daughters deserve this legacy.”

On the present recording, Ms. Maslovaric is joined by fellow violinist Katarina Aleksic and in the concerto by the Budapest Symphony strings to bring several of Johanna Senfter’s compositions back to life.

The first work on the disc is the most substantial, the Concerto in C minor for Two Violins and String Orchestra, Op. 40. It’s a short work, four movements combining for a little under eighteen minutes, but it’s a lovely and rewarding piece. The second, slow movement is particularly enchanting, graceful and longing. The third movement, labeled “Lustig” (“funny”) is also a charmer--light, sprightly, airy, bouncy. Ms. Maslovaric calls the third-movement themes “enchanting.” One can understand why. The final movement, “Bewegt” (“emotional,” “moving”) sums up the concerto’s material nicely, drawing the piece to a satisfying conclusion. It’s a twentieth-century composition, but it is also a definite throwback to an earlier age of Romanticism.

For much of the concerto I forgot there were two violins playing, the two performers so richly intertwined in the music. They both play with poise and style, putting the music ahead of any special grandstanding. They are an accomplished pair.

Following the Concerto, we hear Ten Old Dances for Two Violins, Op. 91, comprising two suites. They are mainly Baroque in nature, as evidenced by the familiar titles of the individual dances: “Allemande,” “Courante,” “Sarabande,” “Gavotte,” “Gigue,” “Bourree,” “Minuet,” “Loure,” and “Passepied en Rondeau.” Nevertheless, despite their Baroque connections, these dances are clearly the products of a twentieth-century sensibility. It’s a charming combination of styles, actually, and under the guidance of the two soloists they bounce along quite amiably, producing a variety of emotions with an emphasis on joy.

Producers Jonathan Shephard and Aleksandra Maslovaric and engineer Redly Denes recorded the music at Studio 22, Magyar Radio, Budapest, Hungary. A lot of well-recorded discs have come my way lately; this is one of them. The two violins are clear and resplendent. The backup strings in the
concerto are well integrated into the sonic picture, the soloists well positioned in front of the orchestra. The transparency of sound throughout the recording is welcome to the ear,.

JJP

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

Classical Music News of the Week, January 23, 2021

World Premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s CATAMORPHOSIS

On Friday, January 29, 2021, at 11am PT / 2pm ET / 8pm CET, the Berlin Philharmonic will perform the world premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s highly anticipated new orchestral work, CATAMORPHOSIS, conducted by Kirill Petrenko.

A further testament to Thorvaldsdottir’s “confident and distinctive handling of the orchestra” (Gramophone) and the often “cosmic scale” (The New York Times) of her music, CATAMORPHOSIS is an imposing meditation on the fragile relationship we have to our planet. The title, in the composer’s own words, “refers both to the fact that if things do not change it is going to be too late, risking utter destruction – catastrophe - and to the way the core of the work is driven by the shift and pull between various polar forces – power and fragility, hope and despair, preservation and destruction.”

For more information, visit https://www.annathorvalds.com/

For the Digital Concert Hall, visit https://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/concert/53139

--Christina Jensen, Jensen Artists

Houston-based Chamber Orchestra ROCO
River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO) is currently in the midst of their 16th season "Color and Light," which you can read more about in their full-season release HERE.

For the past sixteen years, ROCO's Founder and Artistic Director, Alecia Lawyer, has been ahead of the curve in classical music. As a fierce advocate for inclusivity and diversity, Alecia has commissioned numerous works by female composers, and always aims for female conductors and soloists in their programs. According to the Institute for Composer Diversity, ROCO ranks #1 in the U.S. in the number of female composers programmed, and #2 in the number of composers from underrepresented racial, ethnic, or cultural heritage.

Technology has also been an important aspect of programming for ROCO as well, having offered live video broadcasts of their concerts long before the pandemic has forced arts organizations to suspend live programming. ROCO has archived their past performances, which are available to watch on their website and YouTube channel, and they also provide free DVDs of concerts to hospitals, nursing homes, and eldercare facilities.

In addition, ROCO has incorporated a truly creative and groundbreaking childcare service into their concerts, which they call 'ROCOrooters'. The program allows couples to enjoy a date night concert plus dinner by providing free childcare during concerts, with children getting a music lesson, attending a part of the concert, and then having pizza and a movie afterward. Other ROCO innovations include live program notes during concerts via smartphones, and concerts set in site-specific, collaborative, and multidisciplinary configurations ranging from the Houston Zoo to a crypt in Harlem.

For more information about ROCO, visit https://roco.org/

--Joe De Gilio, Unison Media

Richard Lonsdorf Appointed Executive Director of New Century Chamber Orchestra
Richard Lonsdorf has been appointed Executive Director of New Century Chamber Orchestra effective immediately, it was announced today by Board President Mark Salkind. Mr. Lonsdorf, who has served as Interim Executive Director since August 1, 2020, will support Music Director Daniel Hope in establishing the ensemble’s ongoing artistic vision, oversee strategic planning and operations, drive major donor fundraising and earned revenue goals, and collaborate with the Board of Directors to ensure the long-term fiscal health of the organization. Mr. Lonsdorf succeeds Philip Wilder who stepped down from his position July 31, 2020 to become the President and General Director of Chanticleer.

“Over the past few months, Richard Lonsdorf has led New Century with exceptional assuredness and a steady hand during one of the most challenging moments for the entire performing arts industry. His innovative approach and willingness to seek out opportunity in these moments is exactly what is needed not only to chart a course through the pandemic but to flourish,” said Board President Mark Salkind. “Making this addition permanent was a unanimous decision and I would like to personally thank the search committee for their tireless effort in finding the perfect candidate for the position.”

--Brenden Guy Media

West Edge Nudges Snapshot to May
Due to continuing health concerns and restrictions on assembly, West Edge Opera is rescheduling Snapshot, its showcase of new opera works in collaboration with Earplay New Chamber Music Ensemble, to May 15th and 16th for both a live performance for audiences to attend in person, and a recording released online for audiences to watch at home.

West Edge Opera is pleased to present its program live and outdoors at 4pm on May 15th at The Bruns Amphitheater at 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, nestled in the hills above Orinda, CA. The Bruns Amphitheater is large enough to accommodate socially-distanced seating, with singers and musicians also distanced to safeguard all.

For audience members that are not comfortable attending an in-person performance, even outdoors, a recording of the 2021 Snapshot program will be released online on May 16th for audiences to watch at home.

West Edge Opera is thrilled to begin working in the Bruns Amphitheater in order to present live music performance again, outdoors.

Tickets are $40.00 and will be available for purchase late March from the West Edge Opera website http://www.westedgeopera.org/snapshot

--West Edge Opera

What's Streaming: Classical (Week of January 25–31)
Monday, January 25 at 7:00 p.m. ET (subsequently available on demand)
Jonathan Biss and Stephen Fry discuss anxiety and the arts--the central theme of Mr. Biss’s new Audible Original, Unquiet.
https://www.92y.org/event/stephen-fry-and-jonathan-biss

Wednesday, January 27 at 1:00 p.m. PT
“Recovered Voices” webinar with James Conlon on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
https://www.facebook.com/IsraelinLA/posts/3787548554601593

Thursday, January 28 at 7:30 p.m. ET (available through Jan. 31)
Wu Man’s “Playing at the Borderlines,” presented by BroadBand.
https://www.broadbandcollab.com/product-page/wu-man-playing-at-the-borderlines

Friday, January 29 at 8:00 p.m. CT
Minnesota Orchestra performs works by J.S. Bach, Dvorák, and Philip Herbert.
https://minnesotaorchestra.org/

Saturday, January 30 at 7:30 p.m. ET (available for 7 days) & Sunday, January 31 at 2:00 p.m. ET (available for 7 days)
Shai Wosner’s Schubertiade: Parts I & II, presented by People’s Symphony Concerts.
January 30: https://www.pscny.org/schubertiadeno1
January 31: https://www.pscny.org/schubertiadeno2

Sunday, January 31 at 10:15 a.m. ET
SongFest presents panel discussion “On the Importance of Song” with James Conlon, Graham Johnson, Jake Heggie, Margo Garrett, and Javier Arrebola.
https://www.songfest.us/sf25

--Shuman Associates

Lara St. John to Launch New Live Streamed Concert Series
Violinist Lara St. John announced The Atterbury House Sessions, a new live streamed concert series celebrating the 150th anniversary of the iconic the Atterbury House with 11 chamber music concerts taking place from January 23 to June 5. The series will feature performances by Sybarite5, Tessa Lark & Michael Thurber, the Ulysses Quartet, Xavier Foley, PUBLIQuartet, The Westerlies, Imani Winds, Aisslinn Nosky, the Brentano Quartet, Augustin Hadelich, and St. John herself.

The concerts will be live streamed for free on St. John’s Facebook and YouTube channels, and will also be available at https://www.classicalwcrb.org/#stream/0, the web home of 99.5 WCRB Classical Radio Boston, and on the Violin Channel. All performances will take place on Saturdays at 5:00 pm EST, and will be available for one week after the performance date.

Performance Schedule
All Performances at 5:00 pm EST

January 23 – Sybarite5
February 6 – Tessa Lark and Michael Thurber, violin and bass
February 20 – Ulysses Quartet
February 27 – Xavier Foley, bass
March 13 – PUBLIQuartet
April 3 – The Westerlies
April 17 – Imani Winds
April 24 – Baroque Violinist Aisslinn Nosky and Friends
May 8 – Brentano Quartet
May 15 – Augustin Hadelich, violin
June 5 – Lara St. John, violin

--Andrew Ousley, Unison Media

San Francisco Symphony Launches SFSymphony+ Streaming Service
The San Francisco Symphony and Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen today announced the launch of a new on-demand streaming service, SFSymphony+ (SFSymphony Plus), and programming details for Spring and Summer 2021.

The new membership-based service, which launches on February 4, will feature exclusive original digital content, including all-new SoundBox programs and CURRENTS episodes, as well as other special projects to be released on a rolling basis. The service will also offer select content free of charge, including previously released programs, newly recorded chamber music performances, and the SF Symphony’s 2021 Chinese New Year Virtual Celebration: Year of the Ox. SFSymphony+ memberships are on sale now via https://www.sfsymphonyplus.org/.

--SF Symphony PR

International Contemporary Ensemble Announces Free TUES@7 Events
The International Contemporary Ensemble continues its TUES@7 series with three events in February 2021: The Process of Creating an Album on February 2, a “Call For ____” Commission Program Information Session on February 9, and a session on the Ensemble’s Mount Tremper Arts Residency on February 23.

TUES@7 events are regular opportunities to engage with members and collaborators of the Ensemble. Artists reflect on past world premieres, pull back the curtain on upcoming works-in-process, and dig deeply into the digitice archive to see how collaborations, new works, and sound creations have blossomed over the past 19 years. Last year the Ensemble presented 11 events featuring world premieres, insightful conversations, and glimpses into new collaborations with over 60 artists. The series has become a thriving virtual destination through the COVID-19 pandemic for audience members, Ensemble members, and collaborators to enjoy extraordinary new music together. Past streams can be found at www.iceorg.org/tues7series.

For more information, visit https://www.iceorg.org/tues7series

--Katy Salomon, Morahan Arts and Media

Young Concert Artists Announces Their 2021 Winter and Spring Programming
Young Concert Artists (YCA) announces their programming for the first half of 2021, beginning with pianist Do-Hyun Kim performing the works of Schumann, Mozart, and Stravinsky on January 28 streamed live from the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Mixon Hall. Pianist Maxim Lando, who the New York Times praised for his “brilliance and infectious exuberance” will continue the season at the Morgan Library and Museum on February 23 with Sibelius’s Piano Sonata in F major and Khachaturian’s Sonata for Piano.

For the complete season schedule, visit Young Concert Artists at https://yca.org/

--Andrew Ousley, Unison Media

Baryshnikov Arts Center Presents First Two Installments of Digital Spring 2021 Season
Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) presents the first installment of its 2021 digital spring season beginning on Monday, February 1 at 5pm ET. The series kicks off with Vibhanga, a non-narrative dance set to a reimagined score of traditional South Indian music, conceived and choreographed by classical Indian dancer Bijayini Satpathy. The piece draws from the curvilinear tendencies of the Odissi dance form, and is influenced by explorations of rhythm, displaying the layered complexities of the classical movement technique. Vibhanga marks Satpathy’s first choreographic endeavor following 25 years of touring with Nrityagram Dance Ensemble.

“Odissi is my mother-expression,” says Satpathy. “After four decades of dancing, I feel the yearning to move at my will with a sense of responsibility and respect that I feel as an heir and inheritor of Odissi. I feel ready to move with that sense of knowing: defying it, coaxing it, humoring it, honoring it and allowing it.”

The new work will be available to view free on demand at bacnyc.org until Monday, February 15 at 5pm ET. The program offering also includes a live-streamed conversation with Satpathy, who is based in Bangalore, hosted by New York-based contemporary dance choreographer Mark Morris. Free registration for the live Zoom conversation on Wednesday, February 10 at 8pm ET will be available beginning February 1 at https://bacnyc.org/.

--Katlyn Morahan, Morahan Arts and Media

7/5 of Beethoven: Part 1 (CD/SACD Reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

For the general public and even among avid aficionados of classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is with little doubt the most widely recognized symphony in the entire symphonic canon. Those first four notes have been indelibly etched into our musical consciousness regardless of whether we associate them with fate knocking at the door (Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary), victory (WW II), or simply as “da-da-da-daaaaa.” My guess would be that most lovers of classical music are familiar with the work, and more likely than not have a favorite recording, or maybe several favorites from the myriad recordings available. The Fifth is one of those pieces that just about every conductor and every orchestra has had a go at over the years.

I have found myself doing a lot of listening to the Fifth lately and going through some of the recordings in my own collection. One of the things that struck me is how conductors seem to make a point of explaining why they have taken the approach they have taken toward the piece, the factors that have influenced their interpretation. Although each conductor would certainly have his or her own reasons for interpreting any composition, it seems as though the very ubiquity of recordings motivates conductors to explain why they have made the interpretive choices they have made. As we read through the thoughts of the seven conductors that I have included in this survey, we would do well to realize that conductors make interpretive choices about any piece of music they record, even though they do not necessarily share their thoughts with us as they have done when recording this iconic symphony.

I have spent a good deal of time listening to these performances, thinking about the similarities and differences in both musical and sonic terms, but mainly just enjoying this magnificent music. To be honest, these are all fine performances and all are well recorded. Although I have my preferences, those preferences are not the result of night-and-day differences. They have changed in the past and could change in the future. That is part of the joy of being a music lover. The musical landscape is not fixed and static. There are new compositions being written and recorded, older compositions being exposed to new light and fresh eyes. There are always new recordings to explore and discover, older recordings to rediscover, so many recordings, so little time, but so much joy.

Please note that I have ordered the seven recordings alphabetically by type. In Part 1, the performances are by orchestras of Beethoven-era size, about 60 musicians, while the other four performances, which will be covered in Part 2, are by modern orchestras of about 100 members. So buckle up, here we go…

Teodor Currentzis, musicAeterna. Sony Classics 19075884972 (CD)

Teodor Currentzis (b. 1972), born in Greece and now living in Russia, where he assembled the group of musicians that form musicAeterna, writes in his liner notes, “what most people know about Beethoven is the result of the performance practices of the 20th century, entering our lives through the legacy of famous postromantic recordings… I truly believe that the first rule for a true immersion into Beethoven’s Fifth symphony is trying to forget what you took for granted from the history of its interpretation, and to reexamine nonnegotiable solid habits of performing history. In that way, I believe, you can start taking your first steps toward the desert space of your own intuition outside the luxurious sarcophagus of tradition. Indeed, this difficult process took me over twenty years, until I started to see and hear this music as something new. However, this ‘something new’ is necessary as it gives you the shock of the first impact that Beethoven definitely wanted, but that has been wasted in the pseudo-existential factories of recording legacy… My only desire for this recording is to bring to the music dramaturgy of the Fifth Symphony the so-called catharsis, in all possible states, starting from the physical state of metronome and form, to the spiritual state of ‘music not to be found in the notes.’”

Although it does not affect my aesthetic judgment about the quality of this release, I do want to point out that of all the Beethoven Fifth recordings available on CD, this is the only one of which I am aware that contains only the Fifth. I would imagine that for some folks, that would be a deal-breaker right there, although to be fair, I would point out that it is available at a lower price than some of the major labels charge (although yes, those labels are giving you more than 31 minutes of music).

That said, I will start out by observing that this is an exciting performance. The first time I heard it, I was amazed at how energetic it sounded and how tight and disciplined the orchestra sounded. If nothing else, this is a recording that makes one heck of a first impression!

As I listened more closely, though, I also found myself feeling as though the performance was in some sense too tight, too disciplined, too earnest in its attempt to drive home the power of Beethoven’s score. There are places where you feel that the conductor is just trying to be a bit different, accenting notes in a slightly different way, punching them a touch too forcefully, making the music seem more breathless, reaching at times beyond drama toward melodrama.

The engineering is also “tight.” It was recorded in the Grosser Saal at the Vienna Konzerthaus (not the famous Musikverein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic). There is some hall resonance, but the recording gives the sense of a relatively small space. To these ears at least, it sounds something like a big studio rather than a small hall.

Still, this is an intriguing and stimulating recording. No matter how familiar you are with the Beethoven Fifth, I believe you will be struck by this recording, that it would make you hear the music as with new ears. You might not find it your favorite recording, but you will be glad you gave it a listen. It may well stimulate you to take a renewed interest in this music and set some time aside to listen to some other recordings. Indeed, as I look back upon my experience, I realize that this is the recording that led to my wanting to do this survey. Upon hearing the Currentzis, I immediately wanted to re-listen to some of the other recordings on my shelves to see how they compared. It was similar to what happened when I first heard the Savall Eroica from has boxed set – the music sounded so fresh and exciting that I wondered how recordings I had not listened to for a while would compare, so I pulled several Eroica recordings off my shelf and started listening with newly attentive ears. ()

John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. DG Archiv Produktion 477 8643 (CD from box with Symphonies Nos. 1-9)

Sir John Eliot Gardiner (b. 1943), an English conductor who is primarily known for his interpretations of music from the Baroque and Classical eras, founded the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique in 1989. In his liner notes to Gardiner’s boxed set of the complete Beethoven cycle, the noted music critic music Richard Osborne opines that “the Fifth is another of Beethoven’s great transforming journeys whose evolution from the embattled C minor opening (‘Fate knocking at the door’) to the fervent C major march finale is both personal and political, and enactment of the contemporary philosophical belief that out of the French Revolution’s confrontation with the old order, a new synthesis, a brave new world, could be born.” He goes on to observe of the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Symphonique, a period instrument ensemble, that “for Gardiner the role of this new 60-strong orchestra was central to the Beethoven cycle. Period instruments, he argued, allow us to hear more in these symphonies; the edge is not taken off as it can be with instruments of a later period and sophistication. The instruments also help underwrite the revolutionary nature of Beethoven’s genius. Without the ‘traffic-jam’ sonorities modern instrument can induce, Gardiner could press forward with tempi and dynamics that drive home the sense of Beethoven pushing his material to its limits. This can be a shock to players and listeners, but it is a shock, says Gardiner, which is mitigated by the music’s energy and humanity.”

Gardiner’s Beethoven cycle was recorded in the early 1990s and released in 1994 as a deluxe boxed set by Deutsche Grammophon, which re-released the recordings on its Archiv budget label in 2010. Perceptive readers may already have been struck by the thought that Currentzis was certainly not the first conductor to question the 20th-centrry performance tradition. In fact, five years before the Gardiner set was released by DG, another English conductor, Roger Norrington, had completed a traversal of the symphonies for EMI with his own period-instrument orchestra, the London Classical Players. Those recordings were quite a sensation at the time. I owned several of them, found them interesting, but they eventually disappeared from my collection. Perhaps at some point I will seek out and re-listen to his version of the Fifth (yep -- so many recordings, so little time!), which I do not remember that much about (my main memory of his Beethoven was that his Eroica was exhilarating but not my favorite while his Ninth just struck me as perverse).

In addition, in the early 2000s Norrington made another recording of the cycle, this time with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, of which he was Principal Conductor from 1998 to 2011. In 2016 the orchestra for budgetary reasons was merged with another Stuttgart-based orchestra, the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra, to form the SWR Symphonieorchester, whose current Chief Conductor is none other than – you can’t make this stuff up – Teodor Currentzis. 

But back to Gardiner. His Beethoven cycle has gained wide acclaim and has generally been considered to be the best of the period-instrument bunch. (One quick digression: I greatly prefer his Ninth to Norrington’s.) His recording of the Fifth was captured from live performances in Barcelona in March, 1994. Once again, we hear a performance marked by energy and exuberance, but not as idiosyncratic as that of Currentzis. The music just seems to breathe a bit easier, the phrasing and accents not as sharply highlighted as they are under Currentzis. In addition, the sound comes across as a bit more spacious and warm. All in all, this is a crackerjack rendition of the Fifth, and the five-disc set is widely available at a bargain price. If you are a Beethoven fan, you really ought to give this set a listen.   
 
Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations. Alia Vox AVSA9937. (SACD, from box with Symphonies Nos. 1-5)

In my review of Savall’s boxed set of Beethoven’s first five symphonies () I mentioned that I would be comparing his version of the Fifth to several other recordings. Well, here we are.

Once again, we have comments from the conductor regarding his approach to the music, which by now should be starting to sound familiar. Savall (b. 1941) writes in the album booklet that “all our orchestral work was done using instruments corresponding to those used in Beethoven’s day and with a similar number of musicians to those deployed by the composer for the first performances of his symphonies, in other words, about 55 to 60 musicians, depending on the symphonies... we started with the basic idea of returning to the original sound and line-up of the orchestra as envisaged by Beethoven, constituted by the ensemble of instruments available in his day. Moreover, we needed to discover the original sources for the existing manuscripts, we studied and compared not only the autograph sources and the extant parts used in the first concert performances, but also modern editions based on those same sources, with the aim of verifying all the indications concerning dynamics and articulation… Our principal aim of projecting in our 21st century the full richness and beauty of these well-known symphonies -- all too often presented in an oversized, overelaborate form, is to restore to these works their essential energy through a proper natural balance between the colours and the quality of the orchestra’s natural sound. In Beethoven’s day, that sound was produced by the stringed instruments (catgut strings and historic bows), woodwind instruments; flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and contrabassoons; brass instruments; sackbuts, trumpets and natural trumpets and the period tympani played with wooden drumsticks. The resulting brilliance, articulation, balance and revolutionary dynamics form the basis of a dynamism based on a respect for Beethoven’s intended tempi (barring a few rare exceptions) and the phrasing to which they give rise, in accordance with the mood indications and the dramatic narrative sustained by the spiritual power of its own message.”

Interestingly, this recording took place in a venue not far from where the Gardiner recording was made, Savall in Cardona, Spain, which is a half-hour or so away from Barcelona. Perhaps there is something in the Spanish air… At any rate, once again we have a performance in which the conductor backs up his words by leading a performance that shows off the “natural energy” and “dynamism” of this remarkable music. The more I listen to Savall’s performance, the more I am in awe of what Beethoven produced in this incredible work that we perhaps take too much for granted these days. As you would expect from a period-instrument performance, the tempos are brisk and the dynamics are lively. The power of the performance is enhanced by the sound quality that the engineering team has managed to capture. Savall seems to build his performance upon a solid foundation of lower strings and tympani, which are well-captured by the microphones. In addition to the warm tonal balance, there is a fine sense of physical space, which audiophiles often term as “imaging.” This is an outstanding performance captured in outstanding fidelity. It is my first choice among the period-instrument recordings I have auditioned.

In Part 2, we will consider four modern-orchestra recordings. Stay tuned.

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 both its equipment and recordings 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 simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, 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

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@gmail.com

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to classicalcandor@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa