In praise of well-recorded Beethoven

Sound is what matters in Beethoven's music. In the Gramophone Philip Clark wrote about "Ludwig van Beethoven, the composer who, more than any other, changed... the sound of music" while in the New Yorker Alex Ross described how Beethoven was "a phenomenon of dazzling and disconcerting force" and how due to his impact "listening underwent a fundamental change". So, in these socially distanced times when audiences have turned to recordings for their classical fix, why is sound quality given so little prominence in Beethoven reviews, or reviews of any other composer's music? I pondered on that question yet again when listening to two new Beethoven releases. The piano is one of the hardest instruments to capture convincingly on a recording. Too often the instrument's upper registers reproduce with a tiring brittle edge. This is not a digital artefact as a select few recordings capture the instrument's full range without reminding the listener that it is a recording, and both my recently auditioned Beethoven recordings are among that select few.

It is almost certainly not a coincidence that both releases come from outside the incestuous celebrity circuit. The Van Baerle Trio is a young Amsterdam-based piano trio founded by pianist Hannes Minnaar, violinist Maria Milstein and cellist Gideon den Herder in 2004. Its members met whilst studying at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, a stone‘s throw from the Concertgebouw which they now consider their musical home. The Trio's survey of Beethoven's Complete Works for Piano Trio for Challenge Classics has attracted rave reviews. In Fanfare Magazine William Kempster described their interpretation of the underrated Triple Concerto with Jan Willem de Vriend conducting the Residentie Orkest The Hague as "by a staggering margin the finest performance and recording of this masterpiece that has ever been put down", and their Archduke "as the greatest recording that piece had ever received".

But it was the sound quality as well as the superlative interpretations that struck me when auditioning the 5 CD set from the Van Baerle Trio. In the Indian summer of analogue recording it was legendary in-house recording teams working for the major labels that set the gold standard for recorded sound, Christopher Bishop and Christopher Parker at EMI, John Culshaw and Kenneth Wilkinson at Decca, and Wilma Cozart Fine and Robert Eberenz at Mercury. But in our binary age freelance production houses now set the gold standard for classical recordings. Credit for the superlative sound on the Van Baerle Trio's Beethoven recordings goes to Bert van der Wolf's Northstar Recordings based near Utrecht in the Netherlands. (An interview with Bert van der Wolf in which he discusses, among many other things, the production challenges presented by hi-res audio technologies is essential reading.)

Northstar recordings have an impressive portfolio of recording projects including several Grammy nominations. Two of these nominations were for recordings made with Jos van Immerseel's Bruge-based period instrument band Anima Eterna - their Beethoven Symphony cycle featured here earlier this year. In common with other leading independent production houses Northstar Recordings list on their website their studio equipment. For monitoring Northstar use state-of-the-art Avalon Professional Monitors made in Boulder Colorado, and their equipment inventory even lists the interconnects used.

Jos van Immerseel provides the link to my second sonically outstanding Beethoven, but this time in a solo recital rather than with Anima Eterna. His exploration of the Piano Works of the Young Beethoven has received superlative reviews, with the Gramophone reviewer describing the Moonlight Sonata as a "genuine interpretative gem" with Jos van Immerseel's interpretation of its Adagio sostenuto described as "nothing short of breathtaking". To these superlatives I would add another for the sound of the replica of an 1800 Walter piano played by Jos van Immerseel: these discs capture the most realistic piano sound I have heard for years. Production credit for this Alpha Classics release goes to Tritonus Musikproduktion GmbH based in Stuttgart. Tritonus also has an impressive history of awards, including work in North America on Michael Tilson Thomas's Mahler cycle.
The photo above of a Tritonus session is revealing: those readers who know a thing or two about audio quality will recognise the speakers as Quad ESL-63s. These classic electrostatic speakers were manufactured from 1981 to 1999 and delivered legendary mid-range transparency. (Tritonus compensate for the Quad's equally legendary bass roll-off by the addition of a sub-woofer.) A common thread is appearing: in addition to hugely talented production staff these two award-winning production houses share a passion for the highest quality audio equipment.

Which leads me on to an important but overlooked - or should that be conveniently ignored? - question: does the quality of the reproduction equipment used by critics to pass judgement on classical recordings in any way compare with the equipment used to make the recordings? It is not an impertinent question. Today's critics are not shy to demonise the sound of certain concert halls, or to wax lyrically about the latest 'acoustically perfect' designer concert hall. The same critics enthuse about how with a new release you just need "to turn it up and feel the walls shake". But what speakers, yet alone interconnects, the critic used to induce that seismic event remains a secret. In fact we know more about that reviewer's quite delightful cat than we do about their auditioning system. Surely he doesn't review classical releases on a Barbican quality system?

Recently we had the absurd situation of a critic posting a review on the classical industry's website of choice admitting that to audition a City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concert, which of course was awarded five stars, they used "the puny sound from computer loudspeakers".  It should be a requirement that all classical reviewers possess not only Symphony Hall Birmingham quality ears, but also Symphony Hall Birmingham quality audio equipment*, and the equipment used for reviews should be listed. And please don't complain that an audiophile-quality system costs a lot of money; instead remember that the Elbphilharmonie cost €860 million and the new London concert hall you are all rooting for will cost at least £288 million. Production houses such as Northstar and Tritonus accept nothing but the best when it comes to audio equipment. Why should critics, and more importantly their readers, accept less?

* I make no claim whatsoever to being a music critic. But in line with my view that anyone writing about sound quality music should declare the equipment used, here is an inventory of my main domestic system. Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 803 speakers, Rotel RA-1592 integrated amplifier, Arcam CD37 CD/SACD player, Thorens TD125 turntable with SME Series 111 and Audio-Technica AT-F3 moving coil cartridge, and Denon TU-260L II FM tuner. Interconnects: QED Reference Audio 40 phono, QED Performance Digital Coaxial, and no-brand oxygen-free speaker cable. Custom made rigid equipment stand with CD player sitting on oak cone footers and damping plates on equipment cases. Mains power via unswitched silver-plated wall outlets, shielded mains cable with audiophile quality IEC connectors, and Synergistic Research Quantum SR 20 mains fuse.

No review discs used in this post. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

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