Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 (XRCD review)

Also, Schubert: Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished." Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra. JVC JM-XR24027.

I have to admit, conductor Munch's Beethoven did not move me very much. It probably has something to do with the 800 other recordings of the Fifth Symphony currently available, but it may also have something to do with the interpretation being rather plain and unadorned. After hearing such electric performances over the years as those from Carlos Kleiber (DG) and Fritz Reiner (RCA and JVC) and such authoritative ones as those from Karl Bohm (DG) and Simon Rattle (EMI), it's hard to get too excited about so straightforward and conventional a reading as Munch's sounds.

On the other hand, the companion piece, Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony gets excellent treatment.  Indeed, Munch produces one the finest recordings of this work I have heard. It is neither too lax and yielding nor too hard-driven or overbearing. Munch delivers a performance that is smooth and refined, to be sure, but passionate as well and strongly committed. The Allegro has all the forward drive one could want without being at all pushy, and the Andante is gentle, relaxed, and glittering with sensitivity and beauty.

Of course, the reason some people with deep pockets buy products in JVC's XRCD audiophile series is because they can expect some of the best possible sound from the best possible source material, and again the JVC engineers do not disappoint. The old, 1955 stereo sonics, originally recorded by RCA, have a strong dynamic thrust and a clarity that makes most of today's digital reproduction seem flabby by comparison. There is a small degree of brightness in the first strings and a touch of tape hiss audible in quieter passages, but such distractions are largely insignificant.

The question remains whether it is worth the high asking price of the JVC disc for essentially a single great performance lasting less than twenty-four minutes. That decision I can't answer for you. And with equally good performances of the Schubert "Unfinished" from conductors like Eugen Jochum (DG import), Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG), Otto Klemperer (EMI), Charles Mackerras (Telarc), and Erik Jacobsen (Ancalagon) at about half the price, the choice is even harder.


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