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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.9 in D minor Op.125
Anna Tomowa-Sintow (soprano)
Agnes Baltsa (contralto)
Peter Schreier (tenor)
José van Dam (bass)
Wiener Singverein, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany, September 1976
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON BD-A 479 1083 [67:14]
 
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 [49:18]
Romance No.1 in G major for violin and orchestra Op.40 [7:11]
Romance No.2 in F major for violin and orchestra Op.50 [8:23]
Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Kurt Masur
rec. Avery Fischer Hall, Lincoln Centre, New York, USA, May 2002
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON BD-A 479 1063 [64:52]
 
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No.9 in E minor Op.95 'From the New World' [44:27]
Bed řich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Vltava [11:01]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Les Préludes [16:43]
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Ferenc Fricsay
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany, October 1959 (Dvořák), January and February 1960 (Smetana), September 1959 (Liszt)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON BD-A 479 1082 [72:11]
 
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Ein Schwert verhieß mir Vater (Die Walküre) [6:27]
Daß der mein Vater nicht ist (Siegfried) [10:44]
Allmächt'ger Vater, blick herab! (Rienzi) [9:47]
Inbrunst im Herzen (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) [3:48]
In fernem Land (Lohengrin) [10:25]
Wesendonck-Lieder (orch. Felix Mottl) [20:00]
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Markus Brück (bass-barintone)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin/Donald Runnicles
rec. Großer Sendesaal, Funkhaus Berlin, Germany, 17-22 September 2012
DECCA BD-A 478 5678 [61:11]

All discs carry three sound codecs: Dolby True HD, DTS Master Audio HD, PCM Stereo, all stereo only: all 24 bit 96 kHz transfers
 
Since ultimately one will buy some of these reissues for the performances let me start with a few comments about them. The Beethoven 9th is very good and those for whom Karajan's approach in 1976 is satisfying will find they can hear more from the original master tapes than they have ever heard before from previous reissues. The acoustic of the Philharmonie gives a nice spaciousness to Karajan's dramatic and large-scale interpretation. For me this is less well recorded, less incisive and less well sung than his 1963 recording with Janowitz, Rössel-Majdan, Kmentt and Berry, but it must be admitted that such judgements probably derive from the performance one grew up with rather than any absolute standard. Karajan is one of the finest Beethoven interpreters we have ever had and no performance can be dismissed. Anne-Sophie Mutter is a great violinist and plays with the expected technical excellence and with great feeling. However, I did find her very self indulgent in her approach to Beethoven's Olympian masterpiece. She repeatedly phrases in a romantic manner which better suits Brahms or Mendelssohn. I wanted her to leave Beethoven to decide what this music is about. Masur's New Yorkers are pushed a little too far back in the sound picture to allow their vital contribution to tell. I can think of several other performances I much prefer.
 
Ferenc Friscay gives three performances of burning intensity. The Dvořák is very individual, varying from indulgently lyrical to fiery and intense. Smetana's famous symphonic poem contains the most dramatic waterfall I have ever heard and the Liszt is as portentous as it needs to be. The Berlin RSO play superbly and with great individuality. These old recordings come from before the age of smooth modern orchestras who all sound much the same. They are quite unique and interestingly different to Karajan's Berliners. The recordings are a bit fierce, probably due to tape saturation at climaxes, but amazingly clear and very stereophonic indeed. For recordings nearly 55 years old they sound well. For the very finest sound one has to hear Jonas Kaufmann's excellent and recent Wagner recital. He truly is "the tenor we have been waiting for" as it says on the box, quoting the Washington Post. With Runnicles and the Deutsche Oper forces playing their hearts out, this is a superb disc. Personally I find Wagner in bleeding chunks to be distasteful, but for those more tolerant this is a magnificent display of musical talent and recording excellence.
 
On to the technical issues of this new venture by Universal Music. Other companies have been issuing Blu-ray Audio - BDA as we can call it - for some years. Naxos and 2L being the most obvious examples. Dan Morgan's article Blu-ray Audio: gimmick or game-changer? is well worth reading for the background. Universal have gone for a common format on this series. All the insert booklets are derived from previous incarnations of the material, thus that accompanying the Kaufmann has an interview, that for the Fricsay has a consideration of his career and so on. Whether the composer or the music gets much space, varies a lot. The on-screen menu has just track numbers without details, for that one must study the box. The discs on my machines simply started playing track 1 at load up and default to the PCM sound codec. If you want to listen to, say, Vltava on Fricsay's disc you must select it while the Dvořák starts without asking permission. I find this an unmusical decision. Discs should load and then wait to be told what track to play. At least we are not plagued with music over the menus as happens in almost all Blu-ray videos. The selection of the sound codec is also something that cannot be done in advance. If you want to use the Dolby Digital True HD track then you have to allow the disc to start in PCM and accept the small break as the player changes over: another curious decision. The sound seemed similar on each of the three tracks offered and I am at a loss to understand quite why Universal offer all three, two would be enough even if multi-channel arrives as they suggest it might (see below). I spot checked different sound tracks on all discs without noticing significant changes of quality. Perhaps they can explain.
 
I was quite disturbed to find my main player unable to spin any of these discs silently, or to even play the DTS-MA track on Beethoven's 9th without severe digital noise. Other players were called into use and one also could not play the DTS-MA on Beethoven's 9th but managed all the others, and a further two players had no problems with anything. My attempt to contact Universal about this failed to produce a response so I am left in the dark as to what strange gremlins are at play. No other discs of any sort in years of use have caused such issues. Nevertheless it may just be me. Fellow reviewers have not so far reported any such problems.
 
All the recordings in this first batch were stereo but on the box inner cover Universal have explicitly left open the possibility of 5.1 surround being offered in future. Since the vaults at Universal must contain a lot of previously unreleased multi-channel material from the ill-fated quadraphony experiment of the 1970s this might give us some exciting future issues, if, that is, this format has a future. With downloads on the rise I am not sure that enough of these will be purchased to justify the experiment. The same company has released two earlier discs with little fanfare. One was the famous Solti Ring on one Blu-ray disc packed quietly in the back of a huge 16 disc CD reissue for top money: £180+. The other was equally surreptitiously included in a boxed set of two CDs and one Blu-ray of Britten's War Requiem. The single Solti Blu-ray contained the entire 14+ hours of Der Ring des Nibelungen and the Britten a mere 82 minutes of the War Requiem, both incidentally in magnificent sound. See above for the extremely moderate timings of the current issues. So why not all the Beethoven symphonies from Karajan for example? A little extra: inside the box is a coupon with a passcode which encourages one to download all the tracks on the disc from hfpureaudio.com. I tried this with one disc and found that the files are not even remotely high definition but just 256/kbs MP3 files for use on one's iPod or whatever, so of no interest to people in search of 'Pure Audio'.
 
Dave Billinge 

Previous reviews (Wagner, CD): Jim Pritchard ~~ Ralph Moore ~~ Simon Thompson

Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphony 9 ~~ Beethoven violin concerto ~~ Dvorak symphony 9