Review by ramesh May 27, 2005 (10 of 10 found this review helpful)
|There exist a handful of orchestral performances where after only a handful of bars, one realises one is in the presence of a truly superlative occasion; Toscanini's Eroica or 1936 Beethoven 7, Karajan's 1964 La Mer, any Mravinsky Tchaikovsky 5. Of course, this doesn't imply one agrees with all that follows, but the air of musical authority is ineluctable. The concert performance of the Schubert 9 under consideration ( labelled here mischievously as '8' under a revisionist numbering scheme ), isn't quite in this august company, because it took me exactly a minute of the first movement introduction to realise what a gem could be in the offing.
These appear to be unedited concert performances of D 944 recorded on March 27 1969, and No 3 in D D200 recorded on February 24 1977. The orchestral playing is remarkably secure, with no executive raspberries of any consequence. Of great interest in this hybrid stereo only SACD is the inclusion of the master tapes prior to any restoration, which gives the disc on SACD format a 142 minute duration. The recording has been processed by 24/88.2 PCM, but no details as to the interventions are detailed, though this is true of all other labels. However, with one glaring fault, the basic tapes for concerts presumably not recorded for commercial release are exemplary. The blot on this copybook is the premature truncation of the final chord, a truly sour final cherry considering the sublime performance of all that has preceded. The massed strings have their full say, but the tape is guillotined before the brass chord has fully sounded.
What is also worthy of note, is that this must be one of the first SACDs of concert broadcasts, not previously released in any format, and hence a bellweather of how the new high density formats can reproduce historic tapes. These are in good, reasonably spacious stereo. They preserve the antiphonal disposition of the violins which the conductor favoured, with basses towards left of centre. Being carping, there is some peak level limiting at fortissimo levels, so all ffs sound about the same, but there is good terracing of dynamics below this, and this dynamic compression is less than live tapes of contemporary vintage. Good German engineering. The sound is superior to many recordings appearing on the BBC Legends label, but in terms of colour and detail, it cannot compare with the live Wand Great C major of 1995 on BMG 68314, featuring the Berlin Philharmonic. The tape appears to have some form of noise reduction even in the unrestored section, for the tape hiss of D 944 is less than that of the 1962 Karajan Beethoven cycle on SACD. The concerts benefit from a reverberant acoustic which preserves the excitement of the performances, though the sound is somewhat homogenised with some internal murkiness. Nonetheless, it is preferable to the uningratiating dryness that the LSO Live engineers have to cope with in the Barbican. It preserves the ambience of sound as if from the back stalls, just under a balcony overhang which is partially limiting the high frequency response. This latter could be due in part to tape age, but the ear easily adjusts, compared to tizzy and etched digititis. The instrumental timbres strike as what the conductor achieved on the night, without the benefit of a multimiked extravaganza, and are naturally balanced. The rounded off sound is actually very pleasant to listen to. Compared to the CDs of the mid 90's from Davis's integral cycle and Wand, these latter two sparkle with more colour and brilliance, but they also suffer from the same handicaps of listening to 44.1 PCM at realistic levels for prolonged periods. The SACD may initially sound dull and subfusc, but is superior in the long run, in terms of offering a balance of reasonable detail yet avoiding the usual artefacts of low sampling rate digital. As should have been said of CD, all that glitters isn't gold.
The performance of the Great C major is surely one of the most inspired ever caught on stereo; on reflection, apart from Böhm, I cannot name a stereo performance which matches it for elucidating the balance of lyricism, drama and tragic darkness in this protean score. The performing tradition of this score stretches from on one pole, the sunny disposition of the Decca recordings of Krips/LSO and Solti/VPO. ( Sidebar. Last week at a local literary festival, I attended the session featuring the English novelist Hollinghurst. The host rather lazily described his last novel as 'English comedy' for the only apparent reasons that he's English, and the book had comic episodes. Why when music is performed with a carefree insouciance, and the composer is Viennese, is the result labelled as 'Viennese' or more annoyingly, 'echt-Viennese'? This is how these two versions are often described, and is surely a manifestation of the 'traditional laziness' which Mahler rightly detested!) At the opposite pole sits Furtwängler's mighty psychodramas, where he transformed the poignant andante into the Schubertian version of the Eroica funeral march.
Timings. Toscanini/Philadelphia 1941 12:55, 12:37, 8:38, 11:14
Furtwängler 30 Aug 1953/ BPO concert 14:20, 16:32, 9:50, 10:57
Furtwängler 15 Sep 1953/ VPO concert 14:26, 17:15, 10:05, 11:40
KUBELIK 1969 concert 12:59, 13:19, 10:01, 11:10
Wand March 1995 concert/ BPO 13:56, 15:46, 10:46, 12:12
Davis 1996/ Dresden Staatskapelle 16:44, 13:54, 15:00, 16:05 ( He takes lots of repeats in the last two movements)
The interpretative schema of Kubelik is closest to Furtwängler with the exception of the andante, and also Böhm in his early 60's BPO recording. In the slow introduction, his rhythmic elasticity is reminiscent more of the latter, where the former's changes of gear tend to be more sudden. The evocative beauty of the horn call is matched by the expressiveness of each other section as they enter, with each phrase beautifully transitioning to the next, as indeed it does for the entire work. He allows brass and timpani their due through the entire work, with the range of character caught by the former remarkable, from velvet legato playing, to brusqueness, without ever allowing them to over-dominate the texture.
The string playing is both supple and energetic. The chording of a massed string attack is the antithesis of the Toscanini/Carlos Kleiber ethos. Violins especially, instead of the maximum force being when the heels of their bows nearly collide with the strings, are sounded with a more rounded and fulsome manner, where the players sound the note at full force deeper into the bow stroke. This leads to a fuller though less brilliant and incisive sonority. Toscanini's martial zealotry in the first and especially the second movement is avoided. The sound doesn't become as congested as it is for Furtwängler, because Kubelik's chording is still more precise than the latter, and he also avoids the overbowing of the double basses which in the latter's performances could lead to a thick wodge of sound in the bass which enervated the beat. The timings show how close he is to Toscanini in the first movement, but the differences detailed above, plus his freer rein to the woodwind and horn soloists, are entirely beneficial compared to Toscanini. He achieves most of the Furtwängler ambience, while preserving more of the allegro drive and vitality; great conducting.
In the andante, he creates the adagio mood of Furtwängler, but with a proper andante con moto tread, without the latter's rendition of a world weary trudge across a King Lear style heath. Of the inexorable buildup to the great climax of this movement, followed by the dramatic pause; previously in my experience, Furtwängler and Giulini were the most coherent proponents of this romantic empathisation. Kubelik is very nearly as effective, even though his basic pulse is more propulsive, because of the masterly alterations in tempi building up to this climax, and his ability to energise the orchestra with such superlatively intense responsiveness on the night. He also allows the lower strings full expressive weight in the halting phrases just after the climax. The divided strings are highly moving in the section which follows, where pizzicati ripple through all the string sections. Solti's version in the early digital era was praised for its soundstaging here. The Kubelik version is not as clear, but this is largely to its benefit, because it is evident the conductor's balancing brings this out, whereas Solti received lots of help from the microphones, making the strings on this early CD appear too close.
The finale is a fitting send off to all the emotional terrain which has preceded. Significantly, the dancing triplet figurations are alertly executed, certainly more so than under Furtwängler, implying the slightly rolled chording of the first two movements were deliberately planned, rather than due to executive mustiness. The fanfare motif in this movement where brass sound with barking timpani strokes, is the most rousing and effective rendition I've ever encountered. The whirlwind finale probes far greater depths than Solti or even Toscanini, for the slightly rounded string chording is still present, and this, together with multiple small but cumulatively telling expressive nuances give the underlying mood a whiff of the Totentanz about it. One suspects that Furtwängler was also aiming for this, but his basic tempo is too sluggish to execute it.
The honesty of the label to present the flaw of the final note is commendable. The engineers perform a fast fade, which does ameliorate much of the blatancy. Intriguingly, even if the last note were preserved intact, it is evident Kubelik wasn't urging the orchestra into a cataclysmic final hammer blow. He was already tailing off some of the power, though not to the same extent as Solti, where the final note is anticlimactic. Apparently, this relates to a minor controversy regarding Schubert's handwriting, where there was ambiguity as to whether a '>' stood either for an accent, or a hairpin decrescendo. This is the only interpretative choice I could question in the entire work under Kubelik's inspired baton.
SYMPHONY No. 3
This could seem a mere filler after the glories of the Great C major, but I am delighted to report it harbours one example of utter recreative genius, which I have not heard executed so well in the handful of performaces I've encountered of this work. The benchmark for this symphony has generally been Beecham's inimitable 1958 performance, last on EMI 566984. Carlos Kleiber's interpretation smacks of a metamphetamine-fuelled high speed boogie through the central movements.
Although Kubelik in 1977 took the first movement in 9:15 minutes compared to Beecham's 7:38, all of Beecham's tempi in the four movements are slower. Kubelik and Davis observe the first movement exposition repeat which Beecham doesn't, accounting for the difference. Davis and Kubelik take about the same time over the first movement, but in the succeeding three, he is nearly half a minute quicker than Kubelik in each, and Beecham correspondingly broader.
What had always been distinguished in Beecham was the unaffected elegance of the phrasing, despite tempi which were in principle too slow for the composer's markings, namely : adagio maestoso/ allegro con brio, allegretto, menuetto vivace and presto vivace. ( Kleiber's John Travolta vivace appears to have marooned Olivia Menuetto-John at the other end of the floor )
The slight drawback in Kubelik is the lush acoustic making the already large orchestra sound bigger. Nonetheless, after a somewhat portentous introduction, the freedom he offers his soloists amply compensates. The slightly greater elegance of Beecham's phrasing, abetted by the slower tempi, is really only noticable with a direct AB comparison.
The largish band is justified in the slow movement, where one would have generally believed otherwise. The miracle comes with the bucolic second subject, plus the short transition into it. It sounds irresistibly like a Dvorák Slavonic Dance coming in to steal the show, with the lilt and chasteness of the solo and string playing here, utterly infectious. Someone would have to possess a heart of stone not to be affected. Beecham's version, otherwise so cherishable, demonstrates how at his broader basic tempo, this gracious interlude doesn't have quite the same effect despite the inimitable playing he elicits from the orchestra. Davis's more modern tempi completely misses the lilting spirit of the dance, and is just too quick to register anything like the joyful graciousness which permeates Kubelik's allegretto. After listening to this rendition, one feels convinced no other tempo relationship is musically as convincing as the one Kubelik supplies. Beecham is superior to the other two in the finale, because of the relaxed phrasing he is able to milk from the score at his ambling speed, though it's not what the composer advised. Nevertheless, so extraordinary is the sublime rightness of the slow movement, that I have no hesitation of putting it alongside Beecham's as the finest interpretation of this charming and unassuming masterwork.
I would urge anyone with affection for Schubert to acquire this SACD. Though the recording isn't top drawer, it is as good a refurbishment of an analogue tape under non studio conditions of its vintage, as one is likely to get. This style of conducting, probably a product of the European high literary and musical culture transmitted from the nineteenth century, is essentially extinct. As I cannot see any current conductor even approaching this style of interpretation, there is no point hoping for a modern DSD state of the art recording, enshrining such performances.
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