Site review by akiralx January 30, 2006
|This stereo-only SACD is another of Universal’s Japanese-only releases, and so is only available as an import to Europe and the US.
It forms part of a curious project that DG began in the early 1970s, to record all the Beethoven symphonies with Rafael Kubelik – but with nine different orchestras. The best have generally been considered to be the Second with the Concertgebouw (one of the finest ever recorded in many critics’ view) and the Fourth with the Israel PO. The Fifth in Boston and the Ninth with his 'own' Bavarian Radio SO were good as well - though Kubelik surpassed the latter when he recorded it again with the same orchestra for Orfeo.
The cycle has been rather fragmented in the CD era (available as an integral set only in Japan) – symphonies 4-6 and 7-9 have now been reissued on two DG Doubles, and a recent Kubelik DG Original Masters box restores the lauded Second as well as the First with the London SO and the Eroica with the Berlin PO. The Fourth and Fifth are aso available together on another Universal Japanese SACD.
The Parisian Sixth was recorded during January 1973 in the Salle Wagram. One can tell that the hall is a spacious venue as the acoustic is generous, but such is the quality of the original recording coupled with the fine SACD transfer that the detail and focus is excellent. In fact the sound throughout is really rather gorgeous, though much of the credit for the ideal orchestral balances must lie with the conductor.
Maybe there is a Francophone element to the performance, but only in a positive way with, for example, the sax-like clarinet at 6’10 in the first movement (rest assured there is no ‘quacking from the horns’, as one critic described a Karajan performance with this same orchestra).
Tempi are fairly orthodox (the performance runs for just under 46 minutes), though there is a very appealing sense of calm and languid grace particularly from the strings, where the individuality of the four sections is as pronounced as I can recall on any recording, certainly of Beethoven. There is a greater sense of freshness and discovery throughout, more so than with more established versions like Boehm’s fine VPO recording, made 2 years before.
The reading certainly doesn’t lack drama, without feeling the need to blast the listener out of his seat for the Storm movement. The vivid presence and detail soon makes itself felt with the gleaming solo flute in the first movement, and Kubelik’s idiomatic skill in this work is displayed beautifully after 9’46 with the gentle falling string figures before the coda.
The languorous strings open the ‘Szene am Bach’ ideally, and there follows a uniquely fine portrayal from bubbling violas and cellos beneath the main theme. In fact the playing throughout this movement is pretty stellar, with details like the beautifully voiced cello pizzicati after 4’11 and a wonderful sense of radiance at 7’53.
The Peasants’ Merrymaking is paced at an ideal tempo, with a lusty village stomp at its centre, and the Storm is ideally paced at bang on 4 minutes. Superbly-focused timpani and lower-strings here.
The Shepherd’s Song opens with gorgeous horn playing, the gleaming tone ideally ‘placed’ but with an apt hint of rusticity - the bland playing here marred Barenboim’s otherwise fine Berlin Staatskapelle recording, probably the best digital version, certainly superior to Rattle’s. The strings have real sweep: one gets the impression that this opportunity to record a Beethoven symphony as part of such a prestigious project came out of the blue – and the players grabbed it with both hands, determined to show what they could do. It was a few years before DG came calling again, wanting to record Debussy and Wagner with Barenboim, so this was a rare chance for this fine orchestra. The whole movement has a beatific aura, and Kubelik handles the close of the work as well as he does the first movement, no mean accomplishment.
Sonically this SACD is excellent, as I’ve hinted at above. The soundstage is generous and one can easily appreciate Kubelik’s normal decision to split the violins left and right. The airy sound overall has a glow which puts one in mind of Klemperer’s famous Philharmonia recording, but the depth and presence of Kubelik’s offering easily surpasses that EMI production, good though it sounds for its age.
With no coupling the disc is hardly generous in playing length, and one can consider that the DG Double set of the middle three symphonies is readily available – but comparing the CD and SACD layers, one notices a clear improvement in terms of depth, presence and warmth from the latter when played via the Stax Classic Earspeaker system, though the soundstage appears similar.
For those willing to import, I recommend this release strongly – I can’t recall enjoying the Pastoral as much for quite a while…