This single disc, taken from the 7 LP Readers Digest Box Set, contains THE BEST sounding recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony we have ever played at Better Records. And that makes it something very special indeed, with nothing short of White Hot sonics and a top performance by Rene Leibowitz conducting the Royal Philharmonic.
Produced by Charles Gerhardt and engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson, to my mind this has always been one of the finest groups of recordings of the complete symphonies of Beethoven , held back only by the usual pressing variations (and the RDG ’60s vinyl). Until we amassed a pile of these sets and got them sparkling clean we had no idea that the recordings could sound this good, good enough in fact to beat all comers — from every major label and then some — in our shootout!
You may have noticed that Beethoven’s symphonies rarely make it to the site. There’s a reason for this: most of the recordings of them don’t sound very good. We are happy to report that, at least when it comes to the Fourth and Fifth, that problem has been solved.
Side Two – Symphony No. 5
A+++. The hall here is HUGE; your speakers will simply disappear. The sound is rich, Tubey Magical and clear, all at the same time. (It’s not quite as clear as the Solti on CS 6092 we will be listing but in every other way it’s better than that record.)
The string texture reminds me of the finest Living Stereos I have heard. The overall sound is as dynamic and exciting as one could hope for, yet Leibowitz manages to make it more lyrical and flowing as well. I know of none better.
One other copy, competitive in most ways with this one, was somewhat more lush and tubey. We felt in the end that the sound on this pressing was actually more correct and lifelike. We like our recordings to have as many Live Music qualities as possible, and those qualities really come through on a record such as this when reproduced on the full-range speaker system we use. It’s precisely this kind of big, clear sound that makes audiophiles prize Decca-London (and RDG!) recordings above those of virtually any other label, and here, unlike in so many areas of audio, we are fully in agreement with our fellow record lovers.
Side One – Symphony No. 4
A+ to A++ and clearly a big step down from side two. It has lovely Golden Age sound, but like so many records from that era, it gets congested when loud. However, it is rich and sweet most of the time.
Almost no RDG copies in our shootout played better than Mint Minus Minus. Click on the Sonic Grade tab to read about the specific playing condition of this copy (which has noise issues on side one).
In an essay titled “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music”, E. T. A. Hoffmann further praised the “indescribably profound, magnificent symphony in C minor”:
How this wonderful composition, in a climax that climbs on and on, leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite!… No doubt the whole rushes like an ingenious rhapsody past many a man, but the soul of each thoughtful listener is assuredly stirred, deeply and intimately, by a feeling that is none other than that unutterable portentous longing, and until the final chord—indeed, even in the moments that follow it—he will be powerless to step out of that wondrous spirit realm where grief and joy embrace him in the form of sound….
Classical Music on Vinyl — An Overview
We sometimes mention the benefits to be gained from regularly listening to classical music. Once a week is a good rule of thumb for playing a recording from the classical world I should think. We all love our rock, jazz, folk and the rest, but there is something about classical music that has the power to restore a certain balance in your musical life that, for whatever reason, cannot be accomplished by other music. Perhaps it grounds your listening experience in something less immediately gratifying, yet deeper and more enriching over time. Once habituated to the effect, the changes in one’s mood are easy to recognize.
Moving Beyond the Average
Of course it should be pointed out that the average classical record is at best a mediocrity and oftentimes a sonic disaster. There are many excellent pressings of rock and jazz, but when it comes to classical music — by its nature so much more difficult to record (and reproduce!) — the choices narrow substantially.
Most of what passed for good classical sound when I was coming up in audio — the DGs, EMIs, Sheffields and other audiophile pressings — are hard to take seriously when played on the modern high quality equipment of today.
We probably audition at least five records for every one we think might pass muster in a future shootout, and we’re pulling only from the labels we know to be good. We wouldn’t even waste our time playing the average Angel, Columbia or DG, or EMI for that matter. The losers vastly outweigh the winners, and there are only so many hours in a day. Who has the time to hunt for so few needles in so many haystacks?
Commitment of Resources
With the above in mind, it should be clear that assembling a top quality classical collection requires much more in the way of resources — money and time — than it would for any other genre of music. We are happy to do some of that work for you — our best classical pressings are amazing in almost every way — potentially saving you a lifetime of work. But we do so at a price; the service we provide is time-consuming to carry out and, as you may have noticed, vintage classical records are not getting any cheaper or easier to find.
On the positive side, every Hot Stamper we sell is 100% guaranteed to satisfy in every way: music, sound, and playing condition. Ideally this means less work for you and more time for listening enjoyment, weekly or more if you can manage to carve it out of your schedule.
Notes on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
by Christopher H. Gibbs
Beethoven’s Fifth did not immediately become the world’s (or even the composer’s) most famous symphony. During his lifetime, the Third, the “Eroica,” was performed more often and the second movement of the Seventh (movements were often heard separately) deemed “the crown of instrumental music.” But over the course of the 19th century, the Fifth gradually came to epitomize Beethoven’s life and musical style. It often appeared at the inaugural concerts of new orchestras, such as when The Philadelphia Orchestra first sounded in November 1900.
The Fifth Symphony picked up further associations in the 20th century, be they of Allied victory during WWII or through its appearance in commercials and popular culture. It is easy to account for both the popularity and the representative status of the Fifth. (The celebrated music critic Donald Francis Tovey called it “among the least misunderstood of musical classics.”) With the rise of instrumental music in the 18th century, audiences sought ways to understand individual works, to figure out their meaning. One strategy was to make connections between a piece of music and the composer’s life. In this no life and work has proved more accommodating than Beethoven’s, whose genius, independence, eccentricities and struggles with deafness were well known already in his own time.
Music and Meaning
In the fall of 1801, at age 30, Beethoven revealed for the first time the secret of his increasing hearing loss and stated in a letter that he would “seize Fate by the throat; it shall not bend or crush me completely.” It has not been difficult to relate such statements directly to his music. The struggle with “Fate” when it “knocks at the door,” as he allegedly told his assistant Anton Schindler happens at the beginning of the Fifth, helped endorse the favored label for the entire middle period of his career: Heroic. The Fifth Symphony, perhaps more than any of his other symphonies, more than those with explicit extra-musical indications like the “Eroica,” “Pastoral,” or Ninth, seems to present a large-scale narrative.
According to this view, a heroic life struggle is represented in the progression of emotions, from the famous opening in C minor to the triumphant C-major coda of the last movement some 40 minutes later. For Hector Berlioz, the Fifth, more than the previous four symphonies, “emanates directly and solely from the genius of Beethoven. It is his own intimate thought that is developed; and his secret sorrows, his pent-up rage, his dreams so full of melancholy oppression, his nocturnal visions and his bursts of enthusiasm furnish its entire subject, while the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and orchestral forms are there delineated with essential novelty and individuality, endowing them also with considerable power and nobility.”
In Beethoven’s Time
Beethoven wrote the Symphony over the space of some four years, beginning in the spring of 1804, during the most productive period of his career. Among the contemporaneous works were the Fourth and Sixth symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, Violin Concerto, Mass in C, three “Razumovsky” string quartets, the first two versions of his lone opera Fidelio, and many other works. Large-scale pieces like the opera, or commissions like the Mass, interrupted his progress on the Fifth, most of which was written in 1807 and early 1808.
The Symphony was premiered later that year together with the Sixth (their numbers in fact reversed) at Beethoven’s famous marathon concert at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on December 22, which also included the first public performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto (the composer was soloist), two movements from the Mass, the concert aria Ah! Perfido, and the “Choral” Fantasy, Op. 80. Reports indicate that all did not go well. Second-rate musicians playing in third-rate conditions after limited rehearsal had to struggle their way through this demanding new music, and things fell apart during the “Choral” Fantasy. But inadequate performance conditions did not dampen enthusiasm for the Fifth Symphony, which was soon recognized as a masterpiece. The novelist, critic, and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote a long and influential review, ushering in a new era in music criticism that hailed “Beethoven’s romanticism … that tears the listener irresistibly away into the wonderful spiritual realm of the infinite.”
A Closer Look
Another reason for the great fame and popularity of this Symphony is that it distills so much of Beethoven’s musical style. One feature is its “organicism,” the fact that all four movements seem to grow from seeds sown in the opening measures. While Beethoven used the distinctive rhythmic figure of three shorts and a long in other works from this time (Tovey remarked that if this indeed represents fate knocking at the door it was also knocking at many other doors), it clearly helps to unify the entire Symphony. After the most familiar of openings (Allegro con brio), the piece modulates to the relative major key and the horns announce the second theme with a fanfare using the “fate rhythm.” The softer, lyrical second theme, first presented by the violins, is inconspicuously accompanied in the lower strings by the rhythm. The movement features Beethoven’s characteristic building of intensity, suspense, a thrilling coda, and also mysteries. Why, for example, does the oboe have a brief unaccompanied solo cadenza near the beginning of the recapitulation. Beethoven’s innovation is not simply that this brief passage may “mean” something, but that listeners are prompted in the first place to ask themselves what it means.
The second movement (Andante con moto) is a rather unusual variation form in which two themes alternate, the first sweet and lyrical, the second more forceful. Beethoven combines the third and fourth movements, which are played without pause. In earlier symphonies he had already replaced the polite minute and trio with a more vigorous scherzo and trio. In the Fifth the Allegro scherzo begins with a soft ascending arpeggiated string theme that contrasts with a loud assertive horn motive (again using the fate rhythm). The trio section features extraordinarily difficult string writing, in fugal style, that defeated musicians in early performances. Instead of an exact return of the opening scherzo section, Beethoven recasts the thematic material in a completely new orchestration and pianississimo dynamic.
The tension builds with a long pedal point—the insistent repetition of the same note C in the timpani—that swells in an enormous crescendo directly into the fourth movement Allegro, where three trombones, contrabassoon, and a piccolo join in of the first time in the piece. This finale, like the first movement, is in sonata form and uses the fate rhythm in the second theme. The coda to the Symphony may strike listeners today as almost too triumphantly affirmative as the music gets faster, louder, and ever more insistent.
Indeed, it is difficult to divest this best known of symphonies from all the baggage it has accumulated through nearly two centuries and to listen with fresh ears to the shocking power of the work and to the marvels that Beethoven introduced into the world of orchestral music.
Notes on Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony
by Christopher H. Gibbs
Beethoven wrote the Fourth during the late summer and fall of 1806, while staying in the palace of Count Franz von Oppersdorff in upper Silesia, far away from the bustle of Vienna. The Count employed his own orchestra, which performed the Second Symphony for Beethoven, who soon agreed to write a new symphony for the Count, to whom it was eventually dedicated.
The Fourth was premiered at a private concert in the Lobkowitz Palace in Vienna, in March 1807, on a program that also included the first performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto (with the composer at the keyboard) and the Coriolan Overture. There was little published commentary at the time.
One of the first reviews, in January 1808, generally praised the Symphony: “The first Allegro is very beautiful, fiery and rich in harmony, and the minuet and trio also have a distinct, original character. In the Adagio, one might sometimes wish that the melody were not so much divided up among the various instruments.”
By the end of Beethoven’s life, once contemporaries were accustomed to how far the composer had expanded the boundaries of music, they viewed the Fourth as classical fare. One critic opined: “There are no words to describe the deep, powerful spirit of this work from his earlier and most beautiful period.”
Decca was an early adopter of the LP album, which put it ahead of its direct competitor EMI. The company was also an early exponent of stereophonic recording. Wilkinson would make the move to stereo recordings for Decca in April 1958, but until then he remained the engineer with the monaural recording team (for a time there were parallel recording teams) because mono was considered the more important release. In the early 1950s, together with Roy Wallace (1927–2007) and Haddy, he developed the Decca tree spaced microphone array used for stereo orchestral recordings. Decca began to use this for recordings in May 1954 [the month and year I was born!] at Victoria Hall in Geneva, a venue Wilkinson did not record in. He preferred recording in London and Paris although he also recorded in Amsterdam, Bayreuth, Chicago, Copenhagen, Rome, and Vienna.
Wilkinson discussed the use of the Decca tree in an interview with Michael H. Gray in 1987.
You set up the Tree just slightly in front of the orchestra. The two outriggers, again, one in front of the first violins, that’s facing the whole orchestra, and one over the cellos. We used to have two mikes on the woodwind section – they were directional mikes, 56’s in the early days. You’d see a mike on the tympani, just to give it that little bit of clarity, and one behind the horns. If we had a harp, we’d have a mike trained on the harp. Basically, we never used too many microphones. I think they’re using too many these days.
Wilkinson’s method of selecting recording venues was recounted in an article on concert hall orchestral sound written by the conductor Denis Vaughan in 1981:
I have recorded in many halls throughout Europe and America and have found that halls built mainly of brick, wood and soft plaster, which are usually older halls, always produce a good natural warm sound. Halls built with concrete and hard plaster seem to produce a thin hard sound and always a lack of warmth and bass. Consequently when looking for halls to record in I always avoid modern concrete structures.
Wilkinson went on to engineer at hundreds of recording sessions. He was said to have worked with more than 150 conductors. He was the engineer most responsible for Richard Itter’s Lyrita recordings (which Decca produced). Itter always requested Wilkinson as engineer, calling him “a wizard with mikes.”
Wilkinson’s stereo recordings with the conductor Charles Gerhardt (including a series of Reader’s Digest recordings and the RCA Classic Film Scores series) and the producer John Culshaw made his name and reputation known to record reviewers and audiophiles. His legacy was extended by the fact that he trained every Decca engineer from 1937 onwards.
Wilkinson, always called “Wilkie” in the music business, was known as a straight-talking man, interested only in the quality of the work. The Decca producer Ray Minshull (1934–2007) recalled Wilkinson’s methods in an interview with Jonathan Valin in March 1993:
Everyone loved and respected Wilkie, but during a session he could be exacting when it came to small details. He would prowl the recording stage with a cigarette – half-ash – between his lips, making minute adjustments in the mike set-up and in the orchestral seating. Seating arrangement was really one of the keys to Wilkie’s approach and he would spend a great deal of time making sure that everyone was located just where he wanted them to be, in order for the mikes to reflect the proper balances.
Of course, most musicians had a natural tendency to bend toward the conductor as they played. If such movement became excessive, Wilkie would shoot out onto the stage and chew the erring musician out before reseating him properly. He wanted the musicians to stay exactly where he had put them. He was the steadiest of engineers, the most painstaking and the most imaginative. In all of his sessions, he never did the same thing twice, making small adjustments in mike placement and balances to accord with his sense of the sonic requirements of the piece being played.
Among Wilkinson’s favourite recordings was Britten’s War Requiem. This was recorded in January 1963 at one of Wilkinson’s favourite venues, Kingsway Hall, with Culshaw as the producer. Among other recordings engineered by Wilkinson were Wagner’s Parsifal recorded live at Bayreuth in 1951, of which the critic Andrew Porter wrote, “…the most moving and profound of spiritual experiences … Decca have recorded, superbly, a superb performance”, and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique with Sir Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May 1972 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Krannert Center.
Wilkinson retired from Decca when the company was taken over by the PolyGram group in 1980. He made no free-lance recordings. His work was released on Lyrita and Reader’s Digest records (as mentioned above) and RCA Records with recordings licensed through Decca. His recordings were characterised by the producer Tam Henderson in an appreciation: “The most remarkable sonic aspect of a Wilkinson orchestral recording is its rich balance, which gives full measure to the bottom octaves, and a palpable sense of the superior acoustics of the venues he favored, among them London’s Walthamstow Assembly Hall and The Kingsway Hall of revered memory”.
On retiring, Wilkinson received a special gold disc produced by Decca with extracts of his recordings. He received three Grammys for engineering: 1973, 1975, and 1978. He also received an audio award from Hi-Fi magazine in 1981 and the Walter Legge Award in 2003 “…for extraordinary contribution to the field of recording classical music”.