Ludwig van Beethoven
Wojciech Rajski conducting the Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra-Sopot
SACD No.s: TACET S 157 (Nos. 1 & 2 TT: 56'56, hybrid disc)
ThoughThese are avowedly audiophile recordings, boasting not only SACD surround sound but also "transistor-free" tube-only recording equipment (Neumann M49 microphones, V72 amplifiers, W85 passive regulators).
In the surround mode the orchestra is in effect spread out on all sides of the listener. Woodwinds will be heard in the foreground, from ten to two o'clock, in the order of bassoons, clarinets, oboes and flutes. To the sides and behind the listener, at the same distance, from about three to nine o'clock, range the second violins, cellos, double basses, and first violins, in that order. Behind this first ring of instruments are the timpani (noon), horns (ten and two o'clock) and trumpets (about 4:30 and 7:30). That's for Symphonies One and Two. The positions of the string sections are shifted somewhat for No. Seven, and for Eight the first and second violins are seated next to one another at the rear left rather than widely divided.
I describe all this in detail because TACET wants you to know that these are the things that make its Beethoven symphony recordings unique and because, given the enormous competition from many other fine recordings of these symphonies, your investment in them will likely be on account of their audiophile qualities. They can be played in simple Red Book stereo CD mode as well, with excellent results, and many listeners may well prefer that.
The sonic results? If you like surround sound, or are especially interested in particular instrumental parts, you may be especially delighted with these recordings. If, like me, you prefer to listen as if seated in a traditional hall and choose stereo mode, you may find the divided violins rather thin and the timpani a bit too dominant at times in the Seventh and Eighth symphonies. (This disc was recorded earlier and at a somewhat higher sound level than the disc with the first two symphonies.) Compare, for instance, the strings in the second movement of Rajski's Seventh with those of Carlos Kleiber leading the Vienna Philharmonic on Dettsche Gramophon. Of course the size of the ensembles makes a big difference here. At the risk of being picky, in the Rajski Seventh and the first movement of the Eighth, during the tutti passages the way the timpani are recorded makes for a sound that verges on the boomy. The characteristic timbre of the timpani can be heard to advantage in the third movement of the Eighth, however.
But let's turn to the performances. To my mind and ears they are very fine. The tempi, on a slow to fast continuum, are within the mainstream though perhaps slightly more brisk than average; in the very fast movements, say the last two movements of the Seventh Symphony, they are as brisk as anyone might wish, with exciting results. Rajski's forward motion is never too driven, though. The music is always allowed to breathe. Phrasing is supple as well — lively and clear, and precise even in the fastest passages. Ensemble and balances are good; woodwinds are heard clearly without being too forward. Dynamics ebb and flow convincingly, and crescendos build well. Some passages that particularly caught my attention include the quiet pauses leading up to a big tutti a third of the way through the first movement of the Seventh Symphony and the nicely swinging momentum in the lovely Larghetto of the Second.
Rajski founded the Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra-Sopot in 1982 as a small ensemble of 20 players; it now has over 50 members. Its repertoire ranges from Baroque to Modern. Rajski, trained in Warsaw, Vienna and Cologne, and has held conducting posts in Poznan and Bonn. His guest conducting travels have taken him to Germany, France, Sweden, England, Hungary, Greece, Mexico and elsewhere and he has conducted in many international festivals. Soloists he has performed with include Rostropovich, Zimerman, Szeryng, Kogan, Eschenbach and Arrau.