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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.3 Op.55 Eroica (1803) [44:27]
Coriolan Overture Op.62 (1807) [7:34]
Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall
rec. Collegiate Chapel, Cardona, Catalonia, Spain, 24-26 January 1994
Reviewed in surround. SACD/CD Surround/Stereo
ALIA VOX AVSA9916 SACD [52:14]

Jordi Savall steps outside his usual repertoire with these two Beethoven performances. The result is very good indeed. Even the short Coriolan Overture comes over as a mysterious tone-poem which is far from a lightweight filler. Two things strike one immediately, the tempi and the penetrating sound of period instruments. The use of these is no longer new and a comparison with Hogwood's CD with the Academy of Ancient Music from 1986 shows many similarities, though Savall is considerably faster. However these rapid tempi are not unknown in more conventional performances. Collectors will be well aware of Toscanini's recordings from both the pre- and post-war periods though I suspect his timings might, in some cases, stem from missing repeats. I think I am right in saying all repeats are observed by Savall. The extreme performances on my shelves, both with full repeats, are Konwitschny and the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1960 taking 52:59 and this new issue taking 44:27. Hogwood takes 50:00. All are magnificent interpretations and I would not be without them. Savall's timpani are, if I may be excused the term, particularly striking. It is obvious that hard sticks are used but it is not merely the loud notes but also the clarity of the soft ones that add rhythmic drive to the gentlest passages. The brass are encouraged to penetrate the textures when required making for some dramatic climaxes. Savall's own notes refer to the passionate involvement of Le Concert des Nations in these readings. It must not be imagined that these are merely speedy and exciting, they are deeply felt and sound, as he intends, like a real attempt to step into the shoes of the contemporary performers of Beethoven's day. For me it is a triumph and I cannot praise this too strongly. The superb notes, three essays covering eleven pages for each language, and excellent illustrations, add to the value of the issue.

The sound is, as noted, detailed and has enormous impact. Indeed the climaxes at times sounded almost overdone but result I am sure from the use of period instruments which have a naturally edgy harmonic envelope, especially the timpani played with hard sticks and the brass (see below). The acoustic of the 11th Century Romanesque Collegiate Chapel Sant Vicenš is reproduced with the most remarkable realism managing the happy combination of clarity and space to perfection. Like one or two other recent Alia Vox Heritage reissues the end-result has been amongst the most impressive demonstrations of believable surround-sound I have heard.

The recording has an interesting history. Made in 1994 for CD it was released on Auvidis in 1996 and then on Na´ve in 2001. The surround issue under review today, was re-mastered by Manuel Mohino who was involved in the original recording sessions. I was so impressed by the sound on the present disc, made with just two pairs of stereo microphones, that I was moved to contact Manuel Mohino for his comments. His reply was so interesting that, with his permission, I am quoting it extensively.

He says that those days were a good time for recording. "We had time and money to do it. I remember we recorded this program one day in Paris, the next day in Bilbao or San Sebastian (not sure which), the next day in Barcelona (at the Liceu, one week before it completely burnt down) and finally during two days and nights after the Liceu concert, in the St-Vincent Church in Cardona. The recording used for the CD release was the Cardona recording."

"Back in 1994, we were not recording multi-track, it was a simple stereo recording, using just an AB pair of B&K microphones. We had to build a special home-made box covered with tissues to damp the boomy sound of the timpani and asked Pedro Estevan to use hard sticks. This proposal came also from Jordi Savall who paid a lot of attention to the sound. He is one of the few musicians able to say that a sound problem can come from the interpretation, not from the microphones. Twenty years later, I admit that we damped too much and the timpani sounds too close because of the lack of reflections coming from the church. Anyhow, it gives a kind of power to the music. Using period instruments adds still more. The harmonic content of loud notes played by instruments such as horns, trumpets, oboes and bass strings. Period instruments sound quieter than modern instruments, but their harmonic content is much richer.

"For the multi-channel SACD re-mastering I used a Sony DRE-S777 Sampling Digital Reverb in order to create the surround stereo field. The good thing with this vintage reverberator is that Sony's engineers have been in this same church, (Cardona) where the original recording was made, to record its acoustics. Sony released this very first real time sampling reverberation in 1999. Sony Music knew about Jordi Savall recordings and they thought it was a good idea to sample the acoustics in which Jordi was recording. So the SACD surround re-mastering of Jordi's recordings made in Cardona can benefit from the real sound of the church, as if they were originally recorded in surround."

Dave Billinge



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