BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in c, Opus 67; Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Opus 58 – Emanuel Ax, piano/ San Francisco Symphony/ Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor – SFSmedia

05.15.11
Emanuel Ax
Audiophile Audition

By Steven Ritter

Absolutely the best-sounding recording of these two works ever issued! 

– SFSmedia multichannel SACD 0037, 68:21 *****:

Now that Tilson Thomas and company have completed their landmark Mahler series it is good to see them continuing on and turning in other directions. The fact that it is Beethoven surprised me somewhat, as this pairing is more known for their adventurous programming, and this is certainly not that, but yet another foray into the tried and true, and heaven knows we are not in any sort of shortage as regards these two works.

But I am still happy to see them, if for no other reason than the fact that this is the best-sounding recording of either of these pieces that I have ever heard in my life.  The clarity, overwhelming presence, and stunning surround sound balance must be heard to be believed, the SFSO sounding like the best orchestra in the world. I am not the type of audiophile that glories in sound for sound’s sake if the interpretation is a dog; but I must admit that I could almost detect that in myself when listening to this recording, marveling many times at the sheer beauty of sound and the outstanding engineering that went into this effort. This is one honey of a recording.

Interpretatively it is actually middle of the road, but that is not a bad thing. Thomas is a proven Beethovenian, having completed a full set of the symphonies many years ago on Columbia with the English Chamber Orchestra. That set was a sparkle, using a smaller orchestra that provided a lean, energetic, and young man’s stab at the symphonies. This Fifth is not like that one; indeed, considering the recent spate of Beethoven symphony recordings the last ten years or so, this one seems a deliberate throwback, at least in the first movement. It is slower than most, and quite deliberate, though the conductor is quick to highlight certain aspects of phrasing that do provide some new illumination on the work. But generally speaking I was a bit fearful at what was to follow. I needn’t have worried—Thomas’s subsequent interpretative felicities show that he was not setting out to take us down memory lane, but was providing a very deliberate and careful approach to the motive-heavy first movement that springs the subsequent movements to life in a manner maybe not possible if not for this deceptive setup as fate first knocks at the door.

I do need to mention that many of the things I hear in this recording that strike me as unusual or even revelatory I do not believe solely the responsibility of the conductor. In this case there are things that have simply been overlooked or drowned out in other recordings that the engineers are able to bring to light here, especially some of the timpani work, often difficult to capture. This reading, while not groundbreaking in a major way, sounds fabulous and is very exciting and convincing.

The Fourth Piano Concerto, Beethoven’s greatest, has no want of great recordings. My favorite, unfortunately, is still sitting somewhere in the Polygram vaults, the '70s reading of a bearded Bernstein conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony on DG with Claudio Arrau, curiously also paired with the Fifth Symphony. That is a stunning reading of this marvelous work, and I wish DGG would get on it—or maybe Archivmusik—and release it. But I must confess that this new turn with Emanuel Ax, certainly one of the most overlooked of the “great” pianists today, gives it a run for the money. This is easily the best new recording of this piece I have heard in 20 years, everything perfectly proportioned, and captured in sound to die for. Ax has a very masculine touch in this work while filigreed with a feminine sensibility in his way with the many decorative passages that are the hallmark of this piece. Yet the heroic nature of the work is not ignored, and the final passages are as exciting as any you will ever hear.

This is in all ways a superb release.
It is not indicated as to whether these forces are planning to complete all the symphonies or the piano concertos or both; but it would certainly be a wonderful idea to continue on with the mixing of both genres on each disc. I have a feeling that if that happens, we will have two sets that would rank with the very best. [Of all the symphony orchestras who have been dropped by their record label and turned to doing their recordings themselves, the San Francisco Symphony has become the most appreciated by some audiophiles for its huge sonic advancement over the very poor last few recordings RCA Red Seal did for them...Ed.]