Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op 68 (Pastorale)
Respighi: The Pines of Rome
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra conducted by Zednek Macal
AIX Records has been around since 1989, but I will confess that I had not heard of them until I started researching DVD-Audio and SACD releases for this site. Their studios have recently undergone a complete renovation with the installation of equipment to record, mix and master in high resolution formats. This disc is their first release in the DVD-Audio format (apart from their sampler reviewed by Stuart Robinson elsewhere on HighFidelityReview.com).
AIX chose an ambitious project for their first release. This disc couples two works which, though at first sight don’t appear to belong on the same programme, do have a common theme – nature – and one other thing in common – the movies Fantasia and Fantasia 2000. The two works approach their subject from very different places: Beethoven’s approach is firmly rooted in the symphonic style of his predecessors, while Respighi, heavily influenced by his contemporaries like Stravinsky, adopts the more modern “tone poem” format.
Beethoven actually composed the Sixth Symphony in 1807-1808, although he had jotted down the musical idea that appears in the slow movement several years earlier. It received its premier at a mammoth concert in December 1808 that included the premier of the Fifth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Choral Fantasy and four other works – and some concert that must have been. Compared to the other much more dramatic works written at around the same time (the Eroica and Fifth Symphonies, the Appasionata and Waldstein sonatas, the Razumovsky Quartets, the Violin Concerto and the opera Leonore – the first version of Fidelio) the Sixth Symphony may seem like a diversion. It does, however have the roots of a long term project, heavily influenced by Joseph Haydn. Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation, had earned huge international acclaim which Hayden capitalized upon with a second oratorio, The Seasons. These works were the bedrock of practically every musician’s experience and the Sixth is Beethoven’s response to that popularity. Each of its lyrical elements has a direct link back to the Haydn oratorios.
Anyway enough of the history for now. This recording was made in the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s new auditorium at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center using state of the art Euphonix digital recorders and consoles and an assortment of microphones.
Anyone who has watched the movie Fantasia has been exposed to the Sixth Symphony, but whereas the movie is pure fiction, the Sixth is firmly rooted in the real world. The thing that immediately struck me about Macal’s interpretation is the tempo that he employs. The “authentic performance” movement of recent years has prompted a lot of research into the exact tempi that Beethoven intended. I own a couple of versions of this work on CD and my favourite is that of Roger Norrington conducting the London Classical Players (EMI CDC 7 49746 2 – now out of print, I think). Norrington’s tempi throughout the work are much faster than Macal’s – for example, Macal’s first movement is timed at 13’9”, Norrington’s is 10’33”. I have to say that I prefer Norrington’s approach. To my mind, Macal drags things out just a little too much, not anywhere close to the point of being turgid, but just too relaxed for my tastes. Two things that did jump out at me and which I made note of several times during my listening session, were instrument placement and dynamics. The addition of a center channel really does anchor the image and keep instruments placed where they should be. Even moving around my listening position did not disrupt the placement too much – you can’t say that of a two channel mix, even one as high quality as the 24/96 PCM mix on the DVD-Video side of this disc. Excellent examples of this are the flute doing its cuckoo impression in the first movement and the various oboe, bassoon, flute, clarinet and french horn solos in the third movement – all of these are reproduced with clarity and placement, just where you would expect them to be if you know anything about the traditional layout of an orchestra. Another one close to my heart – the lower strings. Double bass players are unsung heroes (I can say that, I used to be an amateur bass player) – they rarely get exciting lines to play, but their contributions are vital. It can however be difficult to follow a bass line closely, in my case because of lack of player talent, but sometimes because recording formats and techniques just don’t reproduce them clearly – you know they are doing something but it sounds like they are just scrubbing away down there. In this recording I found the bass lines to be easy to follow – they really come into their own in the fourth movement, Storm, where the lower strings form the guts of the frenetic storm – we are not talking of effects like those from Twister, but, as a musical interpretation, Beethoven gets pretty darn close here. (By the way, is it just me or is the theme of the Storm reminiscent of the entrance of the Commendatore’s statue in Act II, Scene 5 of Mozart’s Don Giovanni?)
In my experience pizzicato strings often do not get reproduced as they sound in the auditorium. There are lots of pizzicato strings in the fourth movement, Joyful, Thankful Feelings after the Storm, from the lower strings in the movement’s main theme, and when the lower strings pick up that theme later in the movement. I thought they came through the rest of the action well in this recording.
Onto the Respigi. First things first, Respighi’s The Pines of Rome is about trees, not whales – quite what the animators of Fantasia 2000 were doing using it as the musical backdrop for the whale scene, I don’t know. It is not a work with which I am very familiar, but I found it growing on me after a couple of listening sessions. I will be the first to admit that my tastes in “classical” music don’t reach very far into the twentieth century – I am more of a pre-Baroque to Romantic kind of guy. I did find the Respighi piece very evocative however, particularly the doleful nature of The Pines near a Catacomb and the grandeur of The Pines of the Appian Way. Anyone who has studied ancient history will be familiar with the Via Appia also called the Regina Viarum or Queen of Roads, the gateway through which the Roman armies marched from Rome to the rest of the Roman Empire. I think Respighi captures that rather well in the fourth segment: to simulate the sound of distant instruments, Respighi places groups of instruments around the performance space – in the audience and off stage. This recording captures those groups well and it is this kind of compositional trick which only a multichannel recording can capture accurately. In two channels those groups just sound distant with no sense of placement.
There is one other aspect of this recording, other than Macal’s tempi, which didn’t work for me. The performance lacks that extra sparkle, the upper strings just don’t sing to me like I would expect them to – I don’t know whether this is the performance or the recording, but I think there is something missing up there. The solo string passages, and the woodwind, brass and percussion sections don’t seem to have the same problem so I am a little mystified as to the reason for it.
The MLP track of the DVD-Audio side of the disc is not overtly flashy in its surround channel content. It is advertised as an “audience mix” and indeed there is some hall ambience there which is notable by its absence as soon as you turn the rear speakers off. On the DVD-video side, the disc contains a Dolby Digital mix, also from the audience’s perspective and a DTS mix, but this is an “on-stage mix” designed to place the listener on stage right in front of the orchestra. Certainly the soundstage is wider with the DTS mix than the other two formats, as one would expect – time for budding conductors to get hold of a copy of the score and follow along. In terms of fidelity I would give the MLP track the nod – things like triangles and reed instruments seemed a little clearer and easier to pick out. In comparison, the Dolby Digital track sounds a little compressed to me, in particular when it comes to passages with large dynamic swings. The DTS track doesn’t seem to suffer the same problem, though it is not really a fair comparison in view of the differences in the mix. There is actually a third track in DD – on the Beethoven material a commentary by Jamie Bernstein Thomas and on the Respighi a commentary by Zednek Macal. Both obviously know their stuff, but the commentaries require concentration and are not suitable for casual listening.
In terms of extras, this disc is jam-packed. The DVD-Audio side doesn’t really have any extras (the 96/24 PCM track is actually on the DVD-Video side of the disc, contrary to the statement on the disc insert), but the DVD-Video side has very comprehensive extras: a full video presentation of the performance including alternate angles in the Respighi section; background notes about the conductor, orchestra, auditorium; comprehensive information about the disc itself, the recording, audio and video set up, AIX Records and disc credits. I cannot think of anything else that might have been included except perhaps excerpts from the score to follow along.
Despite my minor reservations about aspects of the recording and performance, this is an impressive piece of work from AIX and I look forward with great interest to their forthcoming releases.