Comparison of two Beethoven Ninths, both on SACD

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 – Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orch. -/Wojciech Rajski – Tacet multichannel SACD in “Real Surround Sound” – TACET S 219 5.1  61:00 (8/12/16)  [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 – Beethoven Orch. of Bonn/ Stefan Blunier – DGG Gold multichannel SACD 5.1 MDQ 937 1899-6 67:44 [Distr. by Ent. One] *** 1/2:

A tale of two Beethoven recordings – one very unique.

The Beethoven Symphony No. 9 is one of the most often played symphonies. Many would say the 9th is the composers crowning achievement, and I would not disagree.

As a result of its acclaim, I think most of our readers have a copy in their own libraries. So it’s my task to review two new recordings of the 9th, one quite competent and well recorded, the other a radical departure from the usual recording style, but one that is of interest and merit.

Let’s start with the more unique approach. It has been recorded by Tacet in Germany, and as is their custom of late, it’s recorded in  what they call Real Surround Sound. This is not the usual method of instruments up front with ambiance to the rear. In this 9th, performed by the Polish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Wojciech Rajski, we are literally surrounded by the orchestra and chorus. First violins centered between the left front and rear speaker. Piccolo between the right front and right rear, soloists spread up front, while the chorus is in a semicircle at the rear.

It appears to be a gimmick at first glance, but in fact I felt it was the audio equivalent of having the conductor score in front of you. It’s easier to follow musical threads, and I got a greater appreciation for the majesty of the composition listening in full surround. It was disconcerting at first, but after awhile, I found it a musically satisfying experience.

The performance is fine, and the 9th is played at a brisk pace. The bass is prodigious when it’s called for, although every so often in the fourth movement I heard some deep thumps, perhaps someone walking where they should not have been, or a heating/cooling system kicking in.

Some won’t like this surround mix, and the SACD also offers a high resolution stereo mix as well as the usual CD layer, but I think this disc is worth a listen in this enveloping surround format and I’m happy to have had it to review. Against all odds, this ‘gimmick’ actually works musically and emotionally.

The other Beethoven 9th on offer is performed by the Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn conducted by Stefan Blunier. It’s a fine recording too, but more in keeping with the more common surround mixes; i.e. all the musical forces are up front, while the surrounds are used only for hall ambiance. Performance-wise everything is neat and tidy, and the fourth movement is passionate, stately and well recorded, with a very nice and stable front image of the soloists and chorus. I found the bass on this disc somewhat less impactful than what we get on the Tacet, but it wasn’t lacking, just an esthetic decision by the producers.

The Tacet disc offers 5.1 surround, high resolution stereo, the CD layer and the non-traditional 2+2+2 format which requires speakers over your head. I’m not equipped for that kind of playback, so listened to the 5.1 and stereo tracks.

The Tacet recording reminds me of an early quad  vinyl disc and reel-reel recording from Columbia of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra with Boulez.  Listeners were surrounded by the music. Oddly, with the advent of SACD, Columbia released that performance with the orchestra in the front speakers, just ambiance behind.

Tacet is actively engaged in exploring ways to uniquely deliver music. They have a large catalog of these True Surround Sound discs on SACD and Blu-ray, and they are offering vinyl discs of some as well.

Neither disc is the zenith of Beethoven performances from my standpoint. I still love the Von Karajan 9th from his 1962-63 cycle of Beethoven recordings [also available on a DVD at 4:3 ratio, with probably only mono or stereo audio…Ed.], and I’m enamored with Gunter Wand’s intense version from 1986 on the Sound Dimension label. Still, the Rajski and the Blunier are worth having in your library and the Rajski is unique enough for me to recommend it enthusiastically.

—Mel Martin

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