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Beethoven: Symphonies 3 & 4 - Rajski

Beethoven: Symphonies 3 & 4 - Rajski

Tacet  0171-4

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica", Symphony No. 4

Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra
Wojciech Rajski (conductor)

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Review by John Miller - April 28, 2010

SA-CD listeners are remarkably fortunate in the number and variety of complete Beethoven symphony cycles which have been issued in the last few years (several of which are close to completion). They range from classic C20th styles with large orchestras and stellar conductors, through various chamber orchestras, each more or less informed by the latest scholarly information on Viennese performance practices, and lithe C21st interpretations by full symphony orchestras. The arrival of Bärenreiter's new 'Urtext' edition is now working its way into common use (though not, as far as I can tell by Rajski), replacing previous texts which are corrupt in many details.

It is therefore a mine-field for a newcomer who is trying to decide on a choice set; and expensive for die-hard Beethoven symphony collectors. Tacet's cycle, nearing its end with only the Ninth to go, does, however, have one unique distinguishing feature: its producers place the listener in the middle of the orchestra when listening in multichannel.

As with previous issues, the Polish Chamber Orchestra, numbering some 50 musicians, plays in a very reverberant church acoustic, which does pose major challenges for the engineers and producers in precise location of instrumental groups. In previous reviews I have mentioned the inherent problem of their placing all the strings essentially behind the listener, with the violas, string basses and cellos directly at the back. Human sound perception behind the head evolved to locate possible danger sounds like breaking twigs and other human voices, and our brain/ear systems are very poor at precisely locating sounds with soft attack and lower pitches (such as violas, cellos and basses).

In addition, we as listeners to classical music are deeply conditioned to both hear and visualise orchestras arrayed left to right in front of us. Additionally, reverberant acoustics such as Tacet's church venue throw images of instruments around the ambient environment, easily fooling the brain where there is no visual clue. Despite carefully calibrating my system, and testing it on other more clearly defined surround recordings, I've always had difficulty placing the all the PCO's instruments in the places noted for them in the circular diagrams which Tacet provide. Generally, I find that there is only one sweet spot in the room where the surround plan more or less comes together. Finding that spot might be fun for one's inner Hi-Fi persona (and may involve frantically re-checking the system if it doesn't cohere!). However, this is hard work for the brain, and frankly is a continual distraction away from the music. I've even tried sitting facing the rears, so that the strings are in front of me, but then the first violins are on the right, and my conditioning to have them on the left is unsettlingly offended! Others may find it enough to enjoy the general wash of sound about the venue (although at climaxes a great deal of internal detail is lost or obscured).

To listen without distraction to the music, one might turn to the Stereo layer. On this particular disc, Tacet have provided for the first time a "Tube Only" stereo track. This utilizes a pair of Neumann M49 tube mics, feeding V72 tube amps, linked by passive W85 regulators straight into the 24/96 digital conversion. I admit to not being a "tube-head", and wasn't particularly impressed with the sonics of this track. It is at a lower level than the MC track, sounding quite distant until amplified more. The music noticeably recedes again as the instrumental sound level lowers. There is good front-to-back perspective and sense of the large acoustic, but bass is woolly and rather weak. This sound is a good imitation of some re-sampled RCA Living Sound series discs I have heard.

Rajski's interpretations seem not to take period practices into operation very much, and although they would have been considered very good just a few years ago, there is now very stiff competition in both symphonies. In the chamber orchestra category, for example, both Järvi and Antonini have produced magnificent versions of Symphonies 3 and 4, not to mention Immerseel's amazing new period orchestra version of the Eroica with Anima Eterna on RBCD, which thrillingly conveys Beethoven's white-hot inspiration. Järvi and Antonini's bands have amazing attack and rhythmic force, with incisive hard-stick tympani for startling dramatic effects, and their edge-of-the-seat readings frankly make the Polish Chamber Orchestra's efforts, although stylish, rather ordinary. Listen, for example, to the finale of the Fourth Symphony, which Järvi demonstrates to have much greater status than previously allowed. His virtuosic band just sizzle at Beethoven's rapid metronome speed, revelling in the composer's most wickedly comic devices in a dazzling performance, leaving the PCO trailing by some way in both speed and "attitude".

Collectors of the whole series (like myself) will no doubt want to obtain this disc, if only to play with the surround effects. I wouldn't recommend it musically as a sole source of the Eroica and Fourth; there are much more impressive accounts in both the chamber and full orchestral categories. But I'm looking forward to hearing how Tacet's Ninth will fare with surround engineering and production!

Copyright © 2010 John Miller and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Stereo):

Sonics (Multichannel):

stars stars stars

Review by John Broggio - May 6, 2010

A disappointing disc.

This recording, in common with the rest of the cycle, has been recorded with Tacet's "Real Surround Sound", which attempts to place the listener in the middle of the action when listening to the multi-channel layer. Careful balancing is required for this to come off successfully but if it does, the results are highly stimulating if not revelatory. Here, the Eroica is presented thus:
Inner circle (front, L-R): Bassoons, clarinets, oboes, flutes
Inner circle (side/rear, L-R): First violins, violas, double basses, cellos, second violins
Outer circle (front, L-R): Trumpet 1, timpani, trumpet 2
Outer circle (rear, L-R): Horn 2, horn 1, horn 3
In the fourth symphony, the instruments are presented in the following way:
Inner circle (front, L-R): Bassoons, clarinets, oboes, flutes
Inner circle (side/rear, L-R): First violins, violas, double basses, cellos, second violins
Outer circle (front, L-R): Horn 2, timpani, horn 1
Outer circle (rear, L-R): Trumpet 1, trumpet 2
For those listening in stereo, Tacet have made a "tube only" recording (surely not possible with a digital medium!) and such issues of placement are not a consideration as a normal layout is adopted.

The sound is then a critical component of this disc and might be argued to be on an equal if not greater footing than the interpretation itself. As already alluded, the balancing of the playback equipment in multi-channel is enormously important and also very sensitive, for a slight error in speaker distance(s) can lead to the listener drowning in a sea of resonant but ill-defined sound. Even with no equipment problems or in stereo, the recording reveals the small scale of the Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra (Sopot) admirably but also lays bare the vast echo of the recording venue which becomes ever more unappealing upon repeated listening - a phenomenon that appears to be greater in this volume than in earlier releases.

Interpretatively, these readings are conventional and safe recordings which do not appear to follow the latest Barenreiter score (something of an oddity these days). As such, many quirks that spice up rival accounts from Vanska and Haitink (to name but two) are missing. The phrasing is also rather conventional by the standards of today and so do not begin to compete viably with the other cycles already completed on SACD (or indeed RBCD). One curious feature of the disc is that the RBCD layer is about 30s shorter than the SACD layers - this is because a (small) repeat was omitted in the Scherzo of the Eroica on the RBCD layer. Quite why this was deemed necessary is a mystery as the time of the SACD layer is not even over 80 minutes, let alone 82!

Simply put, the recordings from Vanska or Haitink are a far more entertaining proposition if one wants a fuller orchestral sound in gripping readings. Perhaps the most direct competitor though is Jarvi (Beethoven: Symphonies 3 & 8 - Järvi, Beethoven: Symphonies 4 & 7 - Järvi) where he combines the fire of Haitink, the polish of Vanska with a chamber orchestra that gives a great deal of weight in their response despite their relatively meagre size.

Not recommended for anyone who isn't already committed to the cycle.

Copyright © 2010 John Broggio and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Multichannel):

stars stars