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Beethoven: Symphony No 5, Piano Concerto No 4 / Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony

Release Date: 02/08/2011 
Label:  San Francisco Symphony   Catalog #: 37   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Emanuel Ax
Conductor:  Michael Tilson Thomas
Orchestra/Ensemble:  San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Multi 
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SuperAudio CD:  $20.99
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.


BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 5. Piano Concerto No. 4 Michael Tilson Thomas, cond; San Francisco S; Emanuel Ax (pn) SFS MEDIA 821936-0037-2 (SACD: 68:27) Live: San Francisco 12/2009

Is there a better-sounding recording of a Beethoven symphony than this one? If so, I haven’t heard it. Read more Audiophiles do tend to fetishize recordings of Romantic and first-half-of-the-20th century orchestral repertoire (“power music”) but the occasional Classical-era program does make it onto their list of sacred discs. For example, Carlos Kleiber’s mid-1970s readings of Beethoven’s fifth and seventh symphonies for DG are highly regarded, and were reissued on a hybrid multichannel SACD. While that recording provides much of the atmosphere of Vienna’s Musikverein, it doesn’t compare to this new SFS Media release, in terms of power and musical detail.

These live recordings, dating from December 2009, provide a full, rich, and beautifully balanced symphonic sonority. There’s a close up aural perspective that not only serves to limit—pretty much eliminate—audience noise, but also provides a great deal of timbral nuance. When cellos and basses begin the fugal trio section of the symphony’s Scherzo, it’s much easier than usual to separate those two groups of instruments. Solo woodwinds in the slow movement are exquisitely characterized. The recording does not cross the boundary into the over-analytical. For example, much of the time, you have to know what you’re listening for to hear the trombones in the Fifth’s finale. With the concerto, the immediate sonic viewpoint results in the piano taking up most of the soundstage laterally—just how you would experience it from Row D.

I’m sure my colleague Christopher Abbot will deal thoroughly with the musical attributes of this release, and I’m hoping he agrees it is a success. Tilson Thomas chooses to emphasize the lyrical qualities of the symphony. There’s less of the grim newsreel quality that has informed many interpretations since the middle of the last century, but the reading is anything but lightweight. In both the symphony and concerto, drama and catharsis are provided more by substantiality of orchestral weight and tone than by attack and dynamic emphasis. There is, for instance, less of a martial feel to the trumpet and horn fanfare-like gestures in the Fifth’s Andante con moto—the grandeur is provided by sustained, tenuto playing. Emanuel Ax is on board interpretively with his assured performance, producing a singing tone and shaping melodic lines artfully, with a vocal feel.

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony’s post-Mahler SACD endeavors are off to a very good start.

FANFARE: Andrew Quint


First impressions of this new disc from the San Francisco Symphony are of the sheer quality of the production values. The orchestra, especially under the leadership of Michael Tilson Thomas, has a legitimate claim to a place in the pantheon of the world's great orchestras, so their own label ought to be showing off some impressive strengths. That is exactly what happens here. The sparkling SACD audio does full justice to every section: the woodwinds are chirpy and distinct, the horns are brazen, the lower strings are given presence and weight by the strong bass response.

Great as the orchestra and their esteemed conductor undoubtedly are, the best reason to buy this disc is the contribution from pianist Emanuel Ax. There is no shortage of recordings of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, and even among the SACDs, there have been two other strong recent contenders, from Dejan Lazic and Yevgeny Sudbin. Ax is easily the equal of both of these, and is perhaps closer to Sudbin in his interpretation. Like Sudbin, he is able to combine muscular pianism with a lyrical melodic style, although he leans more towards weight than lyricism. He arpeggiates the opening chord, in accordance with Beethoven's stated, although never written, wishes. From then on his performance is all about immediacy and agility. It is heavy, but then that is what the work requires. There is lots of pedal, and the acoustic of the concert hall also blurs the edges. A little more detail might have been nice, especially since the SACD audio would be more than capable of picking it up. But this interpretation is more about the bigger picture, and Emanuel Ax is more interested in whipping up a whirlwind than pondering over the minute details of the score.

Tilson Thomas approaches the Fifth Symphony in a similar spirit. Any thought of period performance is out of the window. Instead we get a turbulent, in-your-face reading that pushes the drama, especially of the outside movements, for all it is worth. It doesn't quite hit the mark. The tempos are often slow and rarely have the flexibility the music requires. Where Carlos Kleiber - to make an unfair comparison - builds the intensity through carefully graded crescendos and slight tempo increases, MTT is more inclined to slow down for the monumental climaxes. A legitimate approach, but not half as engaging or exciting as it could be.

The orchestra are on top form throughout. Despite the size of the string section, they never hold the music back and their ensemble is as good as any. The horns are wonderfully raspy in the second movement of the symphony, as are the trumpets in the fourth.

If you are thinking of buying this for the concerto, do so. I have reservations about the symphony, but I have at least three recordings of the work that are worse, and most other collectors probably do too. Whatever MTT is doing on the podium, he couldn't ask for a better response from his orchestra. They sound great throughout, and the audio puts them in the best possible light. Would that all orchestra own labels matched the quality of SFS Media.

-- Gavin Dixon, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 5 in C minor, Op. 67 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Michael Tilson Thomas
Orchestra/Ensemble:  San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1807-1808; Vienna, Austria 
Concerto for Piano no 4 in G major, Op. 58 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Emanuel Ax (Piano)
Conductor:  Michael Tilson Thomas
Orchestra/Ensemble:  San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1806; Vienna, Austria 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Great 5th spoiled by applause May 15, 2012 By Gail M. (Goleta, CA) See All My Reviews "The Beethoven pieces on this disk enjoy the superb playing and sound recently obtained from the San Francisco Symphony under Tilson-Thomas in their Mahler series. The Fifth Symphony performance and sound are magnificent. Tilson-Thomas conducts an "old-fashioned" playing of the first movement, with tempo moderate enough and playing emphatic enough to lend this music the gravitas it needs. It is not a speed race,as in some period instruments performances, and it finishes with a grand statement of victory. But after this wonderful performance the audience applause breaks in before the reverberation of the last note has died out! The concerto, played by Emanual Ax, also is a fine performance, with the piano closesly miked and a bit prominent compared to the orchestra. The sound of the orchestra in the concerto seems to me a bit coarser than in the symphony, but by ordinary standards is fine enough. But again, after a perfectly quiet live performance, the applause breaks in right at the end. I would recommend this only to listeners who can tolerate the noise of the audience along with the music on the recordings they buy." Report Abuse
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