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Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Konwitschny

Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Konwitschny

Berlin Classics x Tower Record  0301587BC (5 discs)

Stereo Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Beethoven: 9 Symphonies

Ingeborg Wenglor, soprano
Ursula Zollenkopf, mezzo
Hans-Joachim Rotzsch, tenor
Theo Adam, bass
Rundfunkchor Leipzig
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Franz Konwitschny, conductor

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Comment by Joseph Ponessa - October 4, 2020 (1 of 6)

Franz Konwitschny conducted the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig 1949-1962, and made recordings for the Eterna label in the Deutsches Demokratisches Republik, which has been renamed Berlin Classics. For their seventieth anniversary they have reissued some of the gems from their catalogue — on CD or LP or SACD (in collaboration with Tower Records of Japan). At least three of the SACD collections glisten with brilliance: the late Mahler's 9 & 10 with Das Lied von der Erde conducted by Kurt Sanderling in Berlin, and two complete Beethoven symphonic cycles conducted by the elder Franz Konwitschny in Leipzig and by the younger Herbert Blomstedt in Dresden. I mean you will not discover finer Mahler or Beethoven anywhere else, and the SACD sounds like master tape — from which it comes!
Konwitschny began conducting the year before Blomstedt was born, and Blomstedt has continued conducting for nearly sixty years since Konwitschny died. So these two Beethoven sets, though only twenty years apart (1959-1962 and 1979-1980) represent more than ninety years of unbroken performance tradition, both in the DDR and elsewhere. They testify amply to the high level of East German musicianship both before and after the erection of the Berlin Wall. Although one set is from Dresden and the other from Leipzig, members of the Rundfunkchor Leipzig sing in both Ninths, and the then-ubiquitous Dresdner bass soloist Theo Adam also sings in both of them.
If only Konwitschny had been able to avoid his liquor. His career was cut short at the age of sixty, while conducting a rehearsal of Beethoven's Missa solemnis in Belgrade, Serbia — a factoid of which Wikipedia currently is blissfully ignorant. Apart from this Beethoven cycle, his greatest recorded achievement available on SACD is the set of Schumann symphonies from Leipzig, also from Berlin Classics.

Comment by Joseph Ponessa - October 4, 2020 (2 of 6)

Franz Konwitschny conducted the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig 1949-1962, and made recordings for the East-German Eterna label, which has been renamed Berlin Classics. For their seventieth anniversary they have reissued some of the gems from their catalogue — on CD or LP or SACD (in collaboration with Tower Records of Japan). At least three of the SACD collections glisten with brilliance: the late Mahler's 9 & 10 with Das Lied von der Erde conducted by Kurt Sanderling in Berlin, and two complete Beethoven symphonic cycles conducted by the elder Franz Konwitschny in Leipzig and by the younger Herbert Blomstedt in Dresden. I mean you will not discover finer Mahler or Beethoven anywhere else, and the SACD sounds like master tape — from which it comes!
Konwitschny began conducting the year before Blomstedt was born, and Blomstedt has continued conducting for nearly sixty years since Konwitschny died. So these two Beethoven sets, though only twenty years apart (1959-1962 and 1975-1980) represent more than ninety years of unbroken performance tradition, both in the DDR and elsewhere. They testify amply to the high level of East German musicianship both before and after the erection of the Berlin Wall. Although one set is from Dresden and the other from Leipzig, members of the Rundfunkchor Leipzig sing in both Ninths, and the then-ubiquitous Dresdner bass soloist Theo Adam also sings in both of them.
If only Konwitschny had been able to avoid his liquor. His career was cut short at the age of sixty, while conducting a rehearsal of Beethoven's Missa solemnis in Belgrade, Serbia — a factoid of which Wikipedia currently is blissfully ignorant. Apart from this Beethoven cycle, his greatest recorded achievement available on SACD is the set of Schumann symphonies from Leipzig, also from Berlin Classics.

Comment by Athenaeus - October 5, 2020 (3 of 6)

Thanks for this account, Joseph Ponessa. I've never heard this set but I have read some very good things about it. I'm quite tempted to order it.

Have you had a chance to listen to Konwitschny's recording of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony? It was recently released on SACD by Tower Records and John Proffitt wrote two very positive comments about it on this site. I also saw that the reviewers on the Tower Records website are equally enthusiastic about it.

Comment by Joseph Ponessa - October 5, 2020 (4 of 6)

Dear Athenaeus,
I too read those comments on Bruckner's Fifth, and am likewise tempted to get it. Very.
I have looked into my notes from 25 years ago, when I had this Beethoven set on CD. Before the opening of the new Gewandhaus in 1981, the Bethanienkirche in Leipzig was being used as a concert and recording venue. Konwitschny had conducted three complete Beethoven cycles there, in 1952, 1954 and 1958/59, during and in the wake of which the present recordings were made, but those notes did not tell the dates of the recordings.
The notes from the new release tell us that they recorded the Eighth first, but after the rest of the survey was completed, returned to the Eighth to re-record part of it:
1958-6-26/28 and 1961-8-21/23 — Eighth
1959-6-11/19 — First and Seventh
1959-6-11/25 — Second
1959-6-20/26 — Ninth
1960-3-1/15 — Third and Fifth and Sixth
1961-8-17/18 — Fourth
Though the recording process extended over a three-year period, the setup was the same, and there is a consistently high quality of sound. The set was completed just in the nick of time, because the conductor died less than a year later.

Comment by DYB - October 17, 2020 (5 of 6)

I'm having a hard time warming up to Konwitschy for some reason. I have the Beethoven Symphonies (as digital downloads which were released a year or two ago.) And I have some of his Bruckner and I just...can't get into them. Can't figure out what I am missing since he is so highly regarded by so many. Several of the Beethoven Symphonies that I've listened to are just so polite and bland... The Bruckner also comes across as bland. He definitely has a different style.

Comment by John Proffitt - October 17, 2020 (6 of 6)

Having lived with, and listened to, both the Beethoven symphonies set, the Beethoven Overtures + Mendelssohn Scottish set, the Bruckner Symphony 5, and the Brahms Symphony 1 -- all on the Tower Records co-produced Berlin Classics SACDs, I can say without hesitation that this is magnificent, powerful, and dramatic music making out of the rich central European orchestral tradition.

The new high-resolution transfers were made analogue master tape direct to DSD in 2017, with no intervening EQ or tampering with the sound. Prior to 2017, many of the Berlin Classics transfers were processed with Sonic Solutions No Noise to eliminate tape hiss, which also IMO eliminated much of the life and sparkle from the early 1960s originals. The Beethoven symphonies and the Bruckner in particular suffered, so this new transfer is a revelation. The Beethoven set and the Brahms have been released on CD only, so far, in Europe, with Tower Japan selling the SACDs. The Bruckner as of this writing is SACD only from Tower, with a CD release in Europe coming at some time, one assumes. All of the European Berlin Classics CD releases from the new 2017 remastering are branded "Established 1947" -- accept no substitutes, since the earlier CD transfers are still available.

Technically speaking, the SACDs have the impactful sound of an analogue master tape; ie, magnificent in the extreme. In the late 1950s, Eterna/VEB Deutsche Schallplatten in East Germany started a partnership with Philips of The Netherlands to provide technical support for many of these new, stereo recordings. Philips provided Vittorio Negri as the artistic director/producer for the Beethoven, for example, all of which were recorded in Leipzig's Bethanienkirche beginning in 1958. The Bruckner 5 was recorded in the Kongresshalle of Leipzig in 1961. Except for minor tape hiss, they could have been recorded yesterday, in my opinion. One downside of the direct to DSD transfer is the audible pre-echo preceding some fortissimo orchestral entries heard from the original master. That pre-echo in the Bruckner, for instance, had been edited out in pre-2017 masterings; now, it's back, but no big deal as far as I'm concerned.

The SACD releases come with extensive documentation about the recording venues and dates, for the most part. The Overtures set does not, however.

And as I have intimated, the Konwitschny interpretations and the Leipzig Gewandhaus performances are Spitzenklasse. Equalled by some, surpassed by none. The Beethoven is the equal of the roughly contemporaneous Karajan set in all regards, in my opinion. The Beethoven Ninth is a sterling example: the balance of orchestra and chorus is thrillingly forward, not as recessed as in the DG recording. And the moment when the young Theo Adam declaims "O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!" will propel you out of your chair with your hair standing on end. It's that compelling. The Bruckner 5 likewise is as good as they come. Noble, magisterial, and fully representative of a distinguished Central European tradition.