German maestro Carlos Kleiber was an enigmatic musician as suggested by a video biography Traces to Nowhere (reviewed in 2012) that maintained the shrouds over his personal life. The son of world-class conductor Eric Kleiber and talented beyond belief, Carlos Kleiber left behind very few commercial recordings and these two Beethoven symphonies, recorded in 1974 (No. 5) and 1975/76 (No. 7) are among the very finest performances of these works that have ever been captured in the studio.
If there is a Beethoven Top 40 chart topper, Symphony No. 5 would certainly be the people’s choice if not for its absolute strength of musical inspiration. Even those who know next to nothing about classical music would immediately recognize the “fate knocking at the door” theme that opens this work. The accompanying piece, Symphony No. 7, was credited by Richard Wagner as “the very apotheosis of the dance,” and has gained this work its unofficial title, the “Dance Symphony.”
This High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-ray disc combines both symphonies that appeared separately on two LPs with rather short running times, on a Red Book CD, and also on a multichannel hybrid SACD and a DVD-A. Alas, this release does not contain the multichannel mixes from the latter SACD and DVD-A versions and is stereo-only.
Deutsche Grammophon, a recording company better known for its incredible stable of great artists than for its demonstration-quality records, turned in one of its better studio jobs on this one although the master tapes were obviously then and now encumbered by somewhat muddy bass and often submerged instrumental highlights. The Vienna Musikvereinsaal is a concert venue with decent acoustics and this remastering gives us a good account of both symphonies with excellent spread across the stage if with some sonic homogenization of the final product. In this respect, it is true to the original LPs that I had on hand for comparison that were not sonic prizes either. There are three 2-channel High Fidelity Pure Audio (as UMe brands these Blu-ray Audio Discs) formats to choose from, all in 96kHz/24-bit resolution, that included LPCM, DTS-HD Master Audio, and Dolby TrueHD. In the splitting-hair department, differences among them were subtle and not very consequential.
There is a multi-language program booklet with essays on each work by Hans-Gunter Klein and Hans Schmidt that were included in the original LP liner notes. Interestingly enough (or not), there is nary a word on maestro Kleiber.
The Definitive Word
It is probably best to consider both of these performances in the light of what makes them each so special rather than to denigrate their respective audio qualities that, by today’s standards, would be rather run-of-the-mill. Maestro Carlos Kleiber had an interpretative genius that, judged by his limited recorded catalog, drilled into and extracted from the inner essence of the short list of works that he deliberately chose to perform. This High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-ray (a clear audio improvement over its CD counterpart) may not win any awards for sound recording but it does offer to newcomers an unprecedented opportunity to hear some extraordinary Beethoven symphonic performances by an interpreter who, for the most part, seemed to have a direct connection to its creator. For the best example that I can think of, the Allegretto second movement of the Seventh Symphony, often a formulaic afterthought in most recordings, gets a straight-to-the-core rendition that will stay with listeners long after this work is over.
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