This compact set is another in the label’s RQR Series, mastered from analog quadraphonic tapes recorded mostly in the early 1970s by Philips but not released on any of the then-struggling and technically inferior four-channel formats. There has been no attempt to remix to 5.0 or 5.1, but the fidelity has been uniformly excellent on all the releases so far, giving us a chance to hear the music as originally recorded (some were mixed down to stereo for LP release at the time). These recordings were made in Leipzig in 1972 thru 1974, which was before Mazur took over from Zubin Mehta as conductor of The New York Philharmonic.
There are now four different versions of the Beethoven Nine available on SACD sets, with others – such as Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota orchestra – working on SACD cycles which will eventually likely result in a set of the nine. The other three are Karajan’s with the Berlin Philharmonic on DGG, Haitink’s new set with the London Symphony on LSO Live, and Jaap Van Zweden conducting the Hague Residentie Orchestra on Philips. That there are this number of competing versions in the minority format makes sense, considering the central place of Beethoven’s symphonies in the orchestral repertory and in music history in general. The Beethoven Symphonies in surround sound are a no-brainer, considering the advantages of orchestral detail and resolution, as well as the impact of the more enveloping soundstage and hall ambiance. If nothing else, the Ninth with its four soloists and large chorus would definitely call for the hi-res surround format, just as SACD has brought stunning reproduction to many of the Mahler symphonies and other works with choral and solo parts.
The Leipzig Orchestra has been overshadowed by the Berlin Phil, but it also has a long and illustrious history – having been conducted by such as Mendelssohn, Furtwangler and Bruno Walter. Masur’s cycle is solid and of high quality thruout. It would make a fine introduction to the symphonies in depth for the uninitiated. The recordings are not much older than those of the Karajan set, but the sonics sound less processed and more natural, even without considering the considerably differing conducting styles of the two maestros. Also, the Masur set is on 5 discs, bringing down the price vs. the Karajan and others (including many of the CD-only sets) which are 6 discs. One slight disadvantage of using five discs is that there are no “filler” works as on the LSO set, and the symphonies do not progress numerically on the discs. For example, Nos. 1 & 6 share a disc; likewise 2 & 5.
I found the orchestral placement with the Masur set to be of a more distant perspective than the LSO Live SACD set or the recent Ninth with the Atlanta Symphony from Telarc. Yet the spatial layout of the orchestra’s sections and soloists seems of a piece and not artificially boosted or reduced as sometimes heard on the Karajan set. The interpretations are solid and disciplined without dryness or unnatural emphasis on some details. The Masur version doesn’t have the overall snap and immediacy of the LSO Live set, but it flows convincingly. At times I detected a bit of a hole-in-the-middle effect with some of the symphonies, but with the chorus and soloists in the Ninth this disappeared. In the Telarc Ninth I found a rather heavy and forced sonic picture which contrasted with the lighter and more transparent stance of both the Masur and the LSO. Masur’s chorus is extremely spirited in the Ninth, and the four fine soloists sound more forward than on the LSO set. They are: Anna Tomowa-Sintoff, soprano; Annelies Burmeister, mezzo-soprano; Peter Schreier, tenor; and Theo Adam, bass, and are joined by the Radio Chorus Leipzig. The Masur Ninth certainly brings the whole set to a rousing finish in surround!
Beethoven’s spirit is captured effectively by Masur’s musicians. I found the Third and Sixth to be especially glorious performances, but all of the symphonies were excellent. My only hesitation was wishing for a little more of a dancelike feeling in the Seventh. I haven’t heard the Philips SACD set, but that orchestra is not quite at the level of the other three organizations we’re considering here. The set as a whole is probably as good as the other cycles, and should even be considered by those not yet SACD-capable – since the discs are of course hybrid CDs as well.
– John Sunier