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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 [33:30]
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92* [38:46]
Wiener Philharmoniker/Carlos Kleiber
rec. March-April, 1974; *November 1975-January 1976, Musikvereinssaal, Vienna. ADD
Pure Audio Formats: 2.0 PCM 24-bit/96Khz; 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio 24-bit/96Khz; 2.0 Dolby TrueHD 24-bit/96Khz
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 1106 BD-A [72:27]

These performances are justly famous: two of the most widely acclaimed Beethoven recordings ever made. They’ve scarcely been out of the catalogue since they were first issued as individual LPs and then subsequently brought together on a single CD. The recordings are currently available as a CD in DG’s Originals series (447 400-2) or as an SACD, which I have not heard (471 6302). Such is the fame of these recordings that they were an obvious candidate for early issue in Blu-ray Audio (BD-A) format.
 
So much has been written about these recordings that it seems almost an impertinence to say anything further about them. However, to my surprise, the performances have never been reviewed on MusicWeb International before so that’s my excuse for commenting on them. It’s very surprising to note that both symphonies were set down during quite widely spaced sessions for in each case the music-making has the electricity and urgency that one associates with the best live performances. The members of the Wiener Philharmoniker must have played both scores more often than they can remember yet, galvanised by Kleiber, each symphony comes up here sounding not just fresh but radical. The Allegro con brio of the Fifth is intensely dramatic. The pacing is brisk but not over-driven and such is the urgency of the playing and of Kleiber’s conception that the movement, including the exposition repeat, seems to be over in a flash. The Andante con moto is taken at a nice, moderate pace and often sounds relaxed, even genial, as it should, yet even so one is conscious that creative tension is being maintained. The ‘spooky’ third movement is marvellously etched in: highlights include the horn fanfares, first heard around 0:30, which sound wonderfully arresting in both CD and BD-A formats, and the fugal passage, led off most athletically by the cellos and basses. The transition to the finale is expertly managed, the tension palpable, and once the movement itself is launched the reading is superb, the pacing steady and the mood confident and jubilant. In this finale I particularly admired the wide range of dynamics that Kleiber gets from the orchestra but, in truth, dynamic contrasts have been a feature of the entire reading. The performance achieves a conclusion that one can only describe as exalted.
 
So, we’re hearing a magnificent reading of the symphony: what about the sound quality. I synchronised the CD and BD-A discs and played them simultaneously so that I could switch seamlessly from one to another to make an A/B comparison. In the case of the Blu-ray I used the 2.0 PCM layer of the disc and the CD was the Originals series issue, mentioned above.
 
When I recently listened to the first movement of this work in BD-A format in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio it seemed to me that the sound was somewhat edgy though the “intensity of the performance was thrillingly conveyed and the sound of the VPO was reproduced with great clarity.” That final comment remains true but on my equipment I didn’t notice the edginess, which had been apparent especially in the sound of the strings. That may well be because my amplifier does tend to produce quite a warm sound, which I like. However, somewhat to my surprise I didn’t feel that there was a really significant difference between the sound quality when I switched to and fro between the two media. The CD gave great clarity and immediacy, just as the BD-A version did. As the performance unfolded I began to notice occasions where the BD-A offered slightly better reproduction. One such moment was the aforementioned horn motifs in the third movement; another was the clarinet and bassoon solos in the second movement (around 5:20), which seemed to have a little more presence when heard on the BD-A disc; and the cellos and basses seem just a bit more tangible at the start of the third movement fugue in the new medium. Overall, I came to the conclusion that the BD-A produced sound with slightly more impact and presence than the CD but the CD came up extremely well in the comparison and was not shaded in the way that I’d expected.
 
I suspect that this may be to do with the equipment, perhaps especially with the respective DAC processors in my CD and Blu-ray players and the processor in the Blu-ray player in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. In the Listening Studio we achieved extremely impressive results when listening to this BD-A disc and had we had a CD copy available to us I rather think the BD-A might have emerged more triumphant from the comparison than it did in my living room. So, I don’t want to suggest that my experience in any way disqualifies BD-A as a potentially revelatory audio carrier. It seems that hardware is an important factor.
 
What of the Seventh Symphony? In some respects I find this performance even more compelling and stirring than its companion. The introduction to the first movement is powerful and dramatic in Kleiber’s hands - his left/right division of the violins pays huge dividends here and elsewhere in this symphony. Once the Vivace is launched the music is lithe and full of energy. The Vienna horns peal exultantly and there is a definite sense of joy. Wagner famously referred to this symphony as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’. I would not presume to disagree but perhaps one might venture that, in the first movement especially, we have here the apotheosis of Beethoven’s inventive and wholly distinctive use of rhythm for stylistic and expressive purposes. Kleiber’s performance is simply terrific, full of surging vitality.
 
The Allegretto is here notable for the tremendous dynamic control and contrast that’s on display as well as the rhythmic precision of the playing. The Presto fairly bounds along, the music vital and taut. The finale sets the seal on this performance and elevates it to legendary status. The playing - and Kleiber’s conducting - is white hot. The music sounds absolutely thrilling and the listener is borne along on an exultant flood tide. Yet this is achieved without resorting to unduly fast speeds. Yes, the pacing is swift but never to such an extent that the music sounds gabbled; at all times the articulation is superb. This is a performance of total exhilaration. No performance that I’ve ever heard matches this one; Beethoven’s music is here re-born in a creative crucible.
 
Once again I listened to the CD and BD-A discs simultaneously, switching between them at will. The comments I made above about the Fifth Symphony apply here as well, I believe. There were times when the BD-A was more impressive than the CD: I noted a little more depth to the sound in the first movement introduction when playing the BD-A for example. However, on my equipment - and I deliberately emphasise the point - the CD compared very well. If nothing else it pleases me that my CD player, now a few years old, continues to deliver the goods in the face of up to date technology. However, UMG are fully justified in releasing these performances in the new format and if, on a future visit to our Listening Studio, I get the chance to compare CD against BD-A and get different results I will report accordingly.
 
However, one thing is certain: whatever audio format you use you must have these recordings in your collection. Both performances are quite exceptional and their appearance in BD-A format has given me the chance to revisit them with a critical ear. That process has simply served to emphasise to me the stature of these recordings which are among the very finest Beethoven recordings ever made.
 
John Quinn   

Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphony 5 ~~ Symphony 7

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