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

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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

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa