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Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 9 Op. 125 Print E-mail
Tuesday, 13 March 2001
Ludwig Van Beethoven,
Symphony No 9 Op. 125
Europa Philharmonica Budapest Orchestra & Choir
Maximianno Cobra, Conductor
Hodie "Essentia" Series
DVD-Video and DVD-Audio Versions available
| Performance 7 | Sound 7 |

ImageIf you are at all familiar with other performances of Beethoven’s Ninth, this interpretation will probably shock you, and not necessarily in a nice way. The immediately evident departure from the norm is that the tempi have been reinterpreted by the conductor, Maximianno Cobra, in a way that results in many of them being reduced to something close to half their normally-rendered speeds. Apart from that, the performance is excellent and the recording is quite respectable too, given the multi-mic approach employed.

Two versions are available: a DVD-Video disc with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack accompanying film of the complete performance, plus menus, subtitles, biographies and articles in three languages and a useful DVD-ROM section that allows access to Acrobat PDF files of several articles on the Symphony; and a DVD-Audio version with… just the audio, in 6-channel MLP format only. The running time for the actual performance is a little under two hours.

Cobra gives his reasoning in a paper available from Hodie’s web site ( - it’s also on the DVD-Video’s ROM area) - actually that’s the short, 4-page version (which unfortunately only scratches the surface of Cobra’s theory): the full version is Cobra’s doctoral thesis from the Sorbonne. In these documents we learn that Cobra’s main preoccupation in this performance was to "respect Beethoven’s own metronomic markings to the very letter." But, you might say, wouldn’t that make the performance a lot faster than normal rather than slower? Most interpreters, Cobra tells us, use a "mathematical" reading of Beethoven’s markings. He, on the other hand, has evidently carried out a deep study of how the composer regarded the metronome, and has developed what he calls a "metric" reading of them. This appears to be based on a subdividing of the written tempo by the number of equivalent beats in the measure. Unfortunately the 4-page document just presents us with a brief introduction and a list of comparative tempi. In his chart, for example, Cobra notes the "mathematical" indication for the Finale Presto as a dotted half-note = 96 bpm (beats per minute), while his "metric" reading yields a quarter note = 144 bpm. Without going into tedious detail, a little hard to grasp. But believe me, the overall effect is that we hear the work at what to many people will be a funereal pace. The Presto section that opens the Finale referred to above doesn’t sound Presto at all: it drags horribly compared to anyone else’s interperetation.

However, far be it from me to say that the man is right or wrong. He has done his research and it flies in the face of any interpretation we have previously heard. Would we find it ponderous if it had always been performed like this? Possibly not. Certainly there is a great deal of inner detail that this performance reveals, which usually whizzes past so fast that you can hardly hear it, and it is surely difficult for performers to articulate at the more common speeds.

I am generally speaking in favor of trying to create performances that let us know how a work would have sounded to the listeners of the time. Often 19th century reworkings "tidied up" and sweetened works from previous eras, and the advent of equal temperament effectively removed any subtlety and emotional nuance resulting from the choice of key in earlier pieces. But here we are dealing with something both more recent and, in many ways, more dramatic. And we are so used to hearing this work at twice the speed – here it takes nearly two hours – that even if Cobra is correct, which he may well be, it’s a difficult trick to pull off. You will be able to deal with it, or you won’t. See what you think. The question of how far you go with authenticity is not an easy one and it’s been debated for years: now there is another angle to the discussion. Happily, the classical record industry is large enough that, with popular works like this at least, you can choose the interpretation you prefer on CD today, and no doubt on higher-quality media soon.

Apart from this fairly major point of discussion, everyone acquits themselves well on this pair of discs – essentially the same recording encoded two different ways. The actual playing is excellent, to begin with, and allowing for Cobra’s foible, he is evidently a good conductor. The recording is a bit close-miked for me, and it tends to bring out the untoward sounds produced by any real musical instrument rather more than had the orchestra been miked at a safer distance with a surround mic array like a Soundfield, while tending to counter a coherent, enveloping overall orchestral sound in favor of precise instrumental placement.

Meanwhile, the evident 48-track digital recording tends to err on the side of impressiveness and separation rather than blend and atmosphere. But this kind of approach is hardly unusual, even in classical recording, although it is perhaps a good deal more common in the film industry.

What perhaps is more unusual is that the producer has decided to place us actually within the orchestra, so that the basses, for example, emerge from somewhere towards surround right, and so on. I have nothing in principle against doing this with orchestral material, but I would say that it is unlikely that many listeners will have ever heard this work from the conductor’s rostrum, and it is almost certain that the composer did not expect it to be heard in this way. Do with that what you will. Again, you will either like it or not.

The DVD-Video version for many people will be seen as the better-value offering, with its video of the performance and its extensive additional material. The DVD-Audio version, by comparison, simply plays high-quality audio: there is no on-screen information and it simply behaves like a regular Compact Disc. A sticker on the DVD-Audio’s shrink-wrap claims that it’s a 24/96 recording, but for the life of me I could only find 16/48 on this disc, presumably the same spec as the original master from which the DVD-Video was made. There is a noticeable difference in audio quality between the Dolby Digital and MLP presentations, however: on my Kenwood player, the DVD-Audio version exhibits a cleaner top end and the bass is more defined and yet smooth.

Assuming you can deal with the tempo issue, this is quite a nice surround demo album for people who prefer classical material, as the deliberate "inside the orchestra" effect and enhanced separation induced by close multi-mic, multitrack recording makes the surround experience more impressive. I would normally go for a smoother, more integrated sound myself, but how you record something is a personal thing, just as is your interpretation of the score. Thus I have given this pair of discs fairly high marks, even though I, personally, do not necessarily enjoy the musical or the recording approaches.

I could hardly criticize Cobra for an interpretation of tempi that, although radically different to what we are used to, may in fact be correct, and accepting that, the performance is extremely good. Neither can I criticize adversely an approach to recording and mixing classical music in surround that I would happen not to use myself, because again, the vast majority of modern recordings are multiple close-miked projects. In particular, Hodie’s production team didn’t record this way because it’s the usual way: they made a deliberate decision to use this specific approach for a set of reasons which they regard as valid. Having done so, the execution of their chosen method is flawless.

So here we have a work that offers us at least two artistic challenges: a musical and a recording one. How we react to those challenges must be a personal matter. See what you think.

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