Modern Beethoven Cycle Cut From Analogue Tape
Do you need to add yet another Beethoven symphony cycle to your record collection? What's that you say, you don't have even one? That's not good. Every record collection should include at least one set of Beethoven symphonies even if you don't like classical music.
How can I say that? I'm the editor here, that's how.
But it's true. I don't understand how anyone can claim to be a music lover and not like Beethoven. More than Mozart, Beethoven was the rock star and if your previous Beethoven listening didn't convince you of that, these angular, fast-paced, just plain exciting readings by Järvi played with "back at ya' " aggressive precision (at tempi that would spill a lesser group) by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen will (I didn't say should) convince you.
I was brought up on the 1962 Von Karajan DGG box set that's considered by many to be the standard setter and has been for many decades. In fact I took a music appreciation college course on the Beethoven symphonies and that set was the required textbook. I bought it and it's the only college textbook I kept.
The teacher almost ruined my appreciation for the music by using the word "toy" to mark time and melodic line. By that I mean, he would describe the 5th symphony's main motif by going "toy toy toy TOY, toy toy toy TOY." The "Ode to Joy" from the 9th would be "toy toy toy toy toy toy toy toy, toy toy toy toy toytoytoy." Of course if you don't know these "tunes" you think I'm just toying with you, but believe me, it took years to get the toys out of my head!
Anyway, the back story here is that the thirty plus year old Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (German Chamber Philharmonic of Bremen) is a self-governing "socialist" enterprise wherein the musicians make all of the decisions and take all of the financial risks. The workers own the means of production and they play as if their very lives depend on it because they do! The orchestra was founded by students in Frankfurt in 1980 and moved to Bremen in 1992.
Bremen, home of Beck's Beer (I took this shot of the historical section in 2008)
Mr. Järvi is the group's artistic director and has been since 2004, though he two-times with other orchestras as well. He's currently the Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris. He brings to this cycle a perspective quite different from the post WWII conductors, though his aim is to remain true to the music's historical roots, though not performed on old instruments. And while the German Chamber Philharmonic is not as large an ensemble as, say, The Berlin Philharmonic, it is larger than the grouping Beethoven originally used.
But look, if you're new to Beethoven, let's not get your head spinning with the interpretation wars and if you're a Beethoven fanatic all you need to know is that Järvi's interpretations are well south of Van Karajan's bombast and are sleek and modern even compared to Bernstein's reading on DGG.
So if you know nothing about Beethoven, this is such a great place to get to know a lot. The playing is crisp and clean with emotions provided by modern dynamic intensity not old school ponderous "high drama." Järvi comes right at you, not over you. The instrumental lines are transparently drawn and cleanly rendered, which allows the orchestrations to reveal inner detail complexities, while at the same time cohering and gelling into whole statements.
Even if you've heard dozens of times the better known 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th symphonies, you're sure to get a new charge out of the pacing, the intensity and energy of the playing and the revealing nature of the balance Järvi achieves with the orchestra. I've heard the 3rd symphony I don't know how many times, but somehow Järvi and the orchestra clarify and reveal details of both musical and emotional intent that heretofore seemed obscured. This is particularly true in terms of dynamic scaling. The movement in that regard—particularly small scale dynamic shifts made by the entire ensemble—are astonishing to witness.
While the orchestra is not as large as some you'll hear on record, (it is a chamber not a symphony orchestra so it has approximately 50 not 100 players ) it's large enough to convey the full weight and impact of Beethoven's symphonies. The strings, though not as numerous as in a symphony orchestra are out front in the mix and perform with heart stopping, dazzling precision. The entire orchestra does, so it's not fair to single out just the strings.
So what about the sound? And how did this make it to vinyl? The recording was produced mulit-track DSD (SACD). The venue was Funkhaus Berlin Nalepastrasse, a large recording complex in Berlin. I assume the recording was made in the largest hall, which you really should take a look at here: http://www.nalepastrasse.de/panorama/index.php?pano=studio1&lang=en. You can use your cursor and take a literal spin around the room as well as view it from a variety of vantage points.
The post-production facility was Polyhymnia International, in Baarn, The Netherlands, a state of the art facility that was formerly the Philips Classics Recording Center.
Everything about this cycle, recorded between 2006 and 2008, is of the highest quality. Sony's decision to issue these recordings on SACD makes a great deal of sense.
Getting this project out on vinyl was the result of the dedication and effort of a group of individuals made up of both outsiders and members of the orchestra who provided the time, money and technical expertise to get the job done—along with some corporate sponsors.
The vinyl edition was not an afterthought. A special mix to analog tape was prepared from the multi-track masters and cut to DMM copper disc at Pauler Acoustics and plated and pressed at Pallas in Diepolz, Germany. According to the 31 page booklet's notes, Jürgen Winkler, one of the orchestra's violinists ("with audiophile expertise"), was the project manager and one among many who helped make it happen. There's also an essay called "Why Phonograph Records? that you'll enjoy reading, but not as much as you will listening for this is a superbly recorded set in every way and very "analog-y" in texture and feeling.
The mixes are very coherent and despite the mulit-miking, produce a fully realized picture of an orchestra playing live in a space. The strings are up front and great depth is produced as the other elements—the brass, winds and percussion— are carefully and believably layered front to back with even more space revealed behind the rearmost instruments. Of course since this was recorded in a studio and not a concert hall, don't expect a hall's relatively long reverb time and the large space that a good hall recording can convey. Instead, the picture is relatively intimate but not at all closed in or overdamped. Unless I'm being fooled and artificial reverb was applied, the room sounds as if it has a clean, coherent and rather short reverb time.
But more than the spatial coherence, the instrumental timbres and textures are natural and believable and macrodynamic resolution is sensational.
So yes, even if you have one of the older all-analog cycles, such as the mono Toscanini, the Von Karajan, Bernstein, Klemperer, Bruno Walter, René Leibowitz, or others (I have all of those), this set will make a worthy and exciting addition and one you may find yourself playing ahead of all of the others.
I've certainly heard many live and recorded performances of most of these symphonies, and these by Järvi and Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen are probably the most exciting, pulse-quickening and elegantly informed that I've heard on record. Critics with more classical music expertise than I have seem to agree, so I place myself in good company when I recommend this beautifully packaged and presented box set.
Production is limited so all I can say is don't miss out!