Review by ramesh April 20, 2005 (11 of 12 found this review helpful)
|I heartily recommend this magnificent performance on stereo only SACD, not only to listen to again and again, but to introduce a neophyte to SACD, to show how classic old performances can be rejuvenated by the new medium, assuming the reproducing equipment is of more than 'mid-fi' level. For the purposes of this review, for recording quality I compared it to the 1976 Karajan Choral which has been well reviewed here very recently. I have DVDAs of the Barenboim and Abbado cycles, though not of the Choral, for spot checks of 24/96 PCM digital. To compare recording quality of a DSD transfer of an analogue master, I used the excellent Pentatone Masur Beethoven 'Pastoral', which I would urge readers to consider as a more mellow and humane performance than the 1962 Karajan. Artistically, my references for the choral were Klemperer on Testament, and a clutch of Furtwanglers and Toscanini circa 1944.
The 1962 Karajan has been a stalwart recommendation over the years, in tandem with the 1976 version, as shown by the Gramophone and Penguin guide reviews. (For those with library access,search the Gramophone issue from December 1962 for a fascinating review by William Mann of the recording sessions. This isn't on the Gramophone website. Karajan had a Toscanini LP in the recording booth for spot comparisons.)
Compared to the DG 'Originals' RBCD transfer, the current PCM track of the SACD is significantly better in timbre, and the SACD stereo track is superior in the usual audiophile parameters by the same margin over its RBCD counterpart. This is despite DG utilising a 24/96 PCM digitisation of the master tape. There is still a hint of brightness to the string timbre, but far less than on previous transfers.The Berliners under Karajan were renowned for the unsurpassed richness of their string sound, to my ears more flexible in its application than the Philadelphia strings under Ormandy and Stokowski. Comparisons to the 1970s Leipzig Gewandhaus under Masur, as transferred by Pentatone, show this analogue DSD transfer as the most natural orchestral recording of all.( I have just received the Pentatone of Beethoven 1 and Haydn 88 and 99 conducted by Colin Davis, and this too has wonderful orchestral sound, though the prewar Toscanini BBCSO Beethoven 1 runs rings round Davis and his BBCSO in terms of elan and esprit. But then, so does this prewar performance over all comers. ) Playing this Masur Beethoven SACD in my universal player and then comparing it to the Abbado and Barenboim Beethoven symphonies on 24/96 PCM, my ears preferred the concert hall naturalism of the Pentatone, though the PCM digital tracks had a less tubby bass. Hence, it is impossible to tell whether DG could have improved their SACD even more,if they used a direct to DSD transfer. I don't want to make too much of this though.
The Karajan 1976 Berlin performance, which in my view is equal with the '62 Karajan as the most recommendable non-period instrument stereo ninth, I found came second to its earlier counterpart in terms of the immediacy of the sound in stereo, though things may be different in the multichannel mix. It too is a 24/96 digitisation, but the apparent phalanx of microphones Karajan succumbed to from the Seventies onwards to tweak the internal balances of the sound has midwived a synthetic tonal palette, especially in the first two movements, especially detrimental to strings in terms of immediacy and impact. The strings appear from the vantage of the back of a hall, under a balcony, the woodwinds pop up from the woodwork at a much closer distance. The multimiking has reduced some of the bloom in the sound. I played the comparison to a classical musician who knows these recordings. He agreed, with the caveat that the SACD of the '76 Karajan is still a mighty improvement on his RBCD. The leonine power from the strings especially leaps out in the first movement of K '62 compared to K '76. If you only hear K '76, you won't be disappointed if you crank the volume up, but the '62 performance shows how a good analogue tape with minimal miking, recorded in a sympathetic acoustic (the '62 cycle was recorded in a church, the '76 in the Philharmonie in Berlin), can still thrill despite its age. Although the tape hiss is quite audible in the '62 performance, such is the intensity of the performance one forgets all about it after the opening measures, save for the ethereal hush of the adagio's opening. Two nonaudiophiles who know this recording well were amazed at the clarity of the pizzicati in this movement.The tape hiss is less evident than on a preceding RBCD transfer, and I am beginning to wonder whether PCM filtering and other phase effects makes pink noise and hiss more audibly acerbic, or subjectively more intrusive.
As for the quality of the performance, its virtues are well known. It is fiery and single minded in the Toscanini vein. The string articulation of the opening measures is fastidiously precise but not rigid, in contradistinction to Furtwangler's depiction of it as the mists of Creation. (The score notates semiquaver sextuplets, not tremolo. Furtwangler plays it tremolo, which may be more philosophically apposite; Karajan and Toscanini delineate it as sextuplet semiquavers; most other conductors fall somewhere in between. On my system, K 62 sounded more ominous and anticipatory than K76, despite being hissier; ironically the hiss makes it more atmospheric!)The climax of the first movement is more volcanic than on any other stereo version I know of. A caveat here is that for me Furtwangler is the greatest artist for Beethovenian tragedy. Under Karajan's baton, the concluding eruptions of the allegro are cinematic in their authority, but Furtwangler somehow manages to conjure up Shakespearean tragedy. What I mean by this, is that F and Klemperer, in the latter's more plodding meat-and-potatoes way, elicits the more humane element of pathos, by various inflections; these devices, the actor's equivalent of pauses and colouring of line, make the Furtwangler interpretation more rhetorical, of the human voice. Karajan wants to show us he has built an orchestra of unsurpassed aptitude, and builds his version of the tragedy in terms of orchestral dynamics and biting rhyhmic attack. I can imagine between my speakers some panoramic visual tragedy unfolding when I listen to the Toscanini or Karajan, but Furtwangler's portrayal is complete of itself. The finale shows all the experience of Karajan as an operatic conductor. The chorus is backwardly set, but this is mitigated in the SACD because of its superior low level clarity. The chorus is well captured in '76 though still a bit musty around the edges possibly because of multitrack mixing and editing; this is rendered irrelevant by the thrilling commitment of the singing, which gets even more delirious in the unanimous sprint to the finish. Janowitz in '62 has an unequalled ascent and placement to her radiant high B. This is unique in my experience, it would be worth buying just to hear this. Schiller's words speak of 'feuertrunken', drunk with fire. Simply put, most sopranos scale this dreadfully high note and we metaphorically mop our brow, Janowitz exults up then onto the note, with sublime intonation and bloom, feuertrunken. As a concluding example of the intensity of the orchestral response, just listen to the semi-fugato section for strings after the final chorus of 'freudig wie ein Held zum Siegen' ( bars 101 ff the allegro assai vivace; alla marcia); has there been any recording of this work, before or since, which has such intensity married to a burnished tonal perfection?
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