September 22, 2005


Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies.  Kurt Masur conducting Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. PentaTone. $59.99 (5 SACDs).

     This is a near-perfect example of the way sound quality can enhance performances that are already excellent.  Ironically, it is not the sort of release that is PentaTone’s main reason for being.  The company was founded to produce top-quality Super Audio CDs (SACDs) recorded with the latest technology.  The SACD standard under which PentaTone produces its recordings allows for five separate audio channels; hence the company’s name.  But this Beethoven cycle has four channels, not five – and it is, of all things, an analog recording.

     These Masur performances date to 1972-1974 and were recorded by Philips using a then-revolutionary four-channel system.  This quadraphonic technique never found a consumer audience in the days when stereo LPs were preeminent, and it was soon shelved – but the original four-channel tapes remained.  It is those that have now been digitally remastered as the basis of this recording.

     Sonically, the project is an all-out success.  Both on multichannel systems and on traditional CD players (with which the SACDs are compatible), the sound is nearly flawless, tremendously clear from the softest passages to the loudest, and superb in picking out some of the less-heard middle voices of the orchestra – which Masur’s performances themselves highlight.  The technical and artistic sides of this five-SACD set are seamlessly intermingled – to the great benefit of the music.

     None of this would matter if the performances did not justify the splendid sound.  But they do.  This is one of the very few Beethoven cycles whose conductor understands the time at which each symphony was composed.  This means, for example, that No. 1 should ideally be conducted as if No. 2 has not yet been written, while No. 4 – which has some superficial similarities to No. 1 – can and should be handled as the successor to the “Eroica,” not to Beethoven’s first symphonic creation.

     Masur and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig give us a fleet-footed No. 1 with notably clear articulation, especially in the runs.  The conductor and players clearly paid special attention to these details; the sonic engineers make sure we hear them.  For No. 2, the intensity is ratcheted up, and there is a sense of grandeur absent in the first symphony.  The orchestral balance is especially good in the Larghetto.  And Masur is consistent even in his quirks, such as the pause before and after the trios of the first two symphonies’ third movements.  This approach was more common in the conducting style of the 1970s than it is today, but it takes little getting used to.

     Other decisions, also common in the 1970s, now seem less justifiable, notably the matter of not taking repeats.  In the first movement of the “Eroica,” for instance, the exposition is not repeated, with the result that the scale of the movement is diminished – a shame, since the music is otherwise beautifully balanced between intensity and forward motion.  (Repeats elsewhere in this set are inconsistent; the ones that belong here and in the finale of No. 5 are sorely missed.)  The second movement has a particularly dramatic middle section, and Masur manages to prevent the smaller-scale third and fourth movements from becoming letdowns through careful attention to pacing and orchestral balance (again, abetted by the very clear sound).

     Symphony No. 4 is, as it should be, jovial but powerful.  The horns in the Adagio are particularly impressive, and the chords and tutti in the finale unusually well-paced.  In No. 5, Masur is straightforward, not overblown; dynamic, not frenetic.  This is above all a musicianly performance – indeed, that single word best encapsulates Masur’s approach to all these symphonies.  The second movement opens more intensely here than usual, then becomes lyrical; the third is suitably mysterious; and the fourth starts with drama and ends with speed.

     The “Pastoral” is a highlight of this set.  The first movement glides – there is nothing overstated here.  The second has lovely, graceful flow, while the third is bouncy and pleasant.  The thunderstorm sounds highly dramatic but not out of proportion to the rest of the symphony, with the flute transition to the finale especially gentle and effective.  The sole disappointment here is an under-emphasis on the horns at the very end – a conductor’s decision that the sound cannot (and should not) alter.

     Despite slightly over-loud trumpets, the first movement of No. 7 is well balanced and well paced.  The second is elegant, flowing almost like a perpetuum mobile.  The third nicely contrasts very bouncy scherzo sections with a chorale-like handling of the trio.  And the fourth has great rhythmic vitality – with, again, especially clear and pleasant sound.

     Masur understands that Symphony No. 8 is short but not small.  It is actually the shortest of the nine symphonies, but was written at the same time as No. 7 and uses some of the same extremes of dynamics.  It is worth noting that neither of these symphonies has a true slow movement – a fact that Masur’s performances make clear.  Masur does not sugarcoat No. 8 or handle it as a throwback to No. 1 or to Haydn.  This is mature Beethoven, with all the rhythmic vitality and dynamic range that implies.

     Beethoven’s Ninth, the “Choral,” is, like the “Pastoral,” a highlight here.  Masur knows that the first three movements are not merely incidental to the finale, and gives them their full due.  The first has wonderful detail and no lessening of tension all the way through the coda.  The second has both rhythmic vitality and genuine delicacy – a word rarely heard in connection with this movement.  Yes, Masur gives the timpani their due – indeed, they are surprisingly brash in the trio sections.  Yet he also lets the bassoon sing and beautifully balances the winds and strings – abetted once more by the excellent sonic engineering.  The sound also aids the gently flowing third movement – listen to the pizzicato strings before the famous horn scales, not just afterwards, for a sample of what makes this recording so special.  But it is in the finale that the melding of musicality and sound is truly outstanding.  Masur balances the “anticipation” and “recall” sections of the movement’s introduction very well – and then come the words, which are exceptionally clear here both from the soloists and from the chorus.  It helps that the singers pronounce the German so well and naturally: bass Theo Adam is especially good, but soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow, mezzo-soprano Annelies Burmeister and tenor Peter Schreier are also quite fine.  It also helps that the Radio Chorus Leipzig sings the words idiomatically and with genuine expressiveness.  But without the superb sound, not all of this would come through.  Every conductor faces balance difficulties in this movement – the quartet before the final chorus is a particularly rough spot – but Masur handles the problems expertly, and the sonic design lets listeners hear just how well he has done so.  Even the silence is wonderful, the long pause before the bassoon introduces the mid-movement march being absolutely, perfectly quiet.  The result is music and sound of the very highest quality.

     This set is not without flaws.  The outer packaging is mediocre; there is no text given for the finale of the Ninth; and the individual SACDs are in flimsy sleeves whose flaps are sealed with rubber cement that periodically sticks to the disks and makes them unplayable without careful cleaning.  Still, if the presentation is less than ideal, the music and sound are so good that the defects are easy to overlook.  PentaTone has produced one of the very best Beethoven cycles available today.

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