There has been a surprising number of Beethoven symphony cycles appearing on SACD, and mostly very fine ones at that. Tacet′s set with the Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra under Woyciech Rajski is unique amongst them, because ist 5.1 multi-channel layer places the listener in the middle of the orchestra. The producers have varied the enveloping arrangement of the instrumental groups for each symphony, claiming to bring out the particular orchestral devices which Beethoven used, and to add clarity and transparency to the sound. On the present disc, the layouts are different for each symphony, representing Beethoven′s addition of 3 trombones, piccolo and contrabassoon to the final movement of the Fifth and trombone, piccolo and timpani to the Storm in the Sixth.
The standard of playing has been exemplary on the previous discs in the series, and this one is no exception. The chamber orchestra is close to the size of orchestras which Beethoven would have used, so the balance between winds and strings affords much greater internal clarity than with full-scale modern symphony orchestras. The Polish Chamber Orchestra also apply some HIP features, such as reduced vibrato and crisp articulation in the strings, hard sticks for the timpani, and in the trio of the scherzo of the Pastoral, the horns play their famous passage as though they were valveless, giving a fine, resonant quacking sound.
The Fifth symphony is given a crackling performance, with precise ensemble and a real sense of ist drama and ultimate culmination in the majestically triumphant Finale. The depth of tone generated by the players leaves nothing to be desired in a comparison with large symphony orchestras. Rajski realises that the Fifth is about rhythm just as much as any work by Stravinsky, and he keeps a steady pulse, just a little slower than Gardiner and Van Immerseel in their HIP performances on RBCD, which use Beethoven′s metronome mark. Some conductors go even faster than this, but the piece is labelled ′con brio′ and not ′con fuoco′. Rajski and his band are superbly rhythmic in their playing, and never merely metrical. This Fifth is as exciting and challenging as any I have heard, the famous VPO/Kleiber notwithstanding. All the required repeats are taken, but not the ′extra′ repeat of part of the Scherzo which was introduced a few years ago on discovery of a new MS source. In his New Beethoven Edition of the symphonies for Bahrenreiter, Johnathan del Mar rejects this particular repeat as not being Beethoven′s last thought on the matter, although it still appears in some HIP performances.
Rajski′s Pastoral vividly illustrates Beethoven′s slightly naive but romantic programme, which would have been a great novelty to ist early audiences. Although the movements are taken in a slightly relaxed way, there is a sense of vernal freshness, with lovely phrasing from both strings and winds, I did feel that a little more contrast in light and shade could have been achieved. The storm is a little disappointing - fine in proportion to the rest of the movements, certainly, but lacking the sheer terrifying outbursts of thunder and sudden flashing of lightning achieved by Gardiner, Immerseel and others - partly because the kettledrums do not seem to have been much encouraged. Again, all the required repeats are included.
Sonically, the wrap-around orchestral sections add an enormous sense of personal involvement in the music making. The strings are in a semicircle behind the listener, woodwind in front. The extra brass instruments are arrayed in an outer circle, making their later appearance even more effective. I do feel, however, that on this occasion (and elsewhere in the series), an opportunity is lost in not dividing the strings to left and right rear, as the fifth in particular has many antiphonal ′pass the parcel′ passages which are are rather lost when the violins are all massed. Also, having the violas directly behind the listener means that they too easily get lost - one′s ability to accurately locate sounds is less from behind, especially in the lower mid frequencies often used by the violas. I found this was easily remedied by turning my seat around and facing the rears! Truly one can experiment happily with this disc.
There is plenty of deep bass, which resonates satisfyingly in the ample acoustic. Although the booklet mentions that the subwoofer channel is not used very much, in this case, even though my speakers are all full-range, the balance was a little bass light until I switched the subwoofer in. I suspect, therefore, that some of the LF has been filtered off and sent to the sub.
This is a very fine pairing of two of Beethoven′s most popular symphonies, very competitive and uniquely able to bring a fully immersive surround experience. I urge those suitably equipped to at least sample this listening mode. Otherwise, there is a well-balanced stereo layer to enjoy these committed and stirring performances. My reservations about the Pastoral′s Storm may be personal. Having collected the series to date, I eagerly await the Eroica and the Ninth, especially to hear how the producers arrange the forces around the listening room in the latter!John Miller