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CD Review

Eugen Jochum

EMI/Warner 4640042

Icon - The Complete EMI Recordings

  • Johann Sebastian Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV. 232 1,3
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: 6
  • Symphony #1 in C Major, Op. 21
  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 36
  • Symphony #3 in E Flat Major "Eroica", Op. 55
  • Symphony #4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60
  • Symphony #5 in C minor, Op. 67
  • Symphony #6 in F Major "Pastoral", Op. 68
  • Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92
  • Symphony #8 in F Major, Op. 93
  • Symphony #9 in D minor "Choral", Op. 125
  • Overture "Coriolan", Op. 62
  • Overture "Egmont", Op. 84
  • Overture "Fidelio", Op. 72b
  • Overture "Leonore" #3, Op. 72a
  • Johannes Brahms: 5
  • Symphony #1 in C minor, Op. 68
  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 73
  • Symphony #3 in F Major, Op. 90
  • Symphony #4 in E minor, Op. 98
  • Overture "Academic Festival", Op. 80
  • Overture "Tragic", Op. 81
  • Anton Bruckner: 4
  • Symphony #1 in C minor
  • Symphony #2 in C minor
  • Symphony #3 in D minor
  • Symphony #4 in E Flat Major "Romantic"
  • Symphony #5 in B Flat Major
  • Symphony #6 in A Major
  • Symphony #7 in E Major
  • Symphony #8 in C minor
  • Symphony #9 in D minor
  • Wolfgang Mozart: 2,3
  • Mass in C Major "Coronation", K. 317
  • Vesperae solennes de confessore, K. 339
1 Helen Donath, soprano
2 Edda Moser, soprano
1 Brigitte Fassbaender, contralto
2 Julia Hamari, mezzo-soprano
1 Claes H. Ahnsjő, tenor
2 Nicolai Gedda, tenor
1 Roland Hermann, baritone
2 Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bass
1 Robert Holl, bass
3 Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Eugen Jochum
4 Staatskapelle Dresden/Eugen Jochum
5 London Philharmonic Orchestra/Eugen Jochum
6 London Symphony Orchestra/Eugen Jochum
EMI/Warner 4640042 20CDs
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

Sometimes you have to wonder how meetings at the so-called major labels go. The now-Warner "Icon" series seems to have no guiding principle outside of "shove it into a cheap box, and people will pay for it". The Martinon and Silvestri boxes were nothing short of fabulous, but why did Martinon's concerto recordings (including some real rarities) make his set, but not Silvestri's? Same for Paavo Berglund's box, which not only left out the concertos but some truly important stuff from Bournemouth. The Arrau box was so close to being complete that it defies all reason that the end product was not, and the same could be said of William Steinberg's box. Mind you, Warner doesn't stand alone with this problem – far from it, in fact – but there's so much good in this series that it's all the more frustrating when something goes wrong.

Happily, this is a box (like the one devoted to Carl Schuricht) that gets everything right. Everything in this box testifies to Jochum's keen understanding of musical structure and tremendous talent. While much of this material has long been available, the Mozart and Beethoven have not been nearly as easy to obtain. Sonically, these were always terrific, although some of the shorter works and the Bach Mass in B minor have been cleaned up for this 2012 release. Unlike some of these boxes, nothing dates from 1989 (mastering-wise) or some such nonsense, and I'm perfectly content with what I hear on my modest equipment. Let's break down what we have:

Bach and Mozart: Two Masses and the Vespers conducted with loving sincerity in the grand manner. Modern ears might flinch at such large-scale music-making, but once you get used to the slower tempos and larger forces, you'll find a lot to like. The soloists are some of the best of their generation, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony and Chorus both rise to the occasion exceptionally well. For those who love Klemperer's sense of cosmic grandeur in Bach, but wish for more warmth, this B minor is for you. And Jochum's careful observance of Mozart's balances and details puts him leagues ahead of Karajan's rather oily approach to choral music. Like some of late Bernstein in Mozart, this is a pleasant surprise.

Beethoven: Jochum's three Beethoven cycles have had spotty distribution and gotten little attention when on the market. His two cycles for Universal (DGG and Philips) were inexplicably out at the same time a few years back and received virtually no promotion. The DGG cycle is an odd stereo/mono hybrid with both the Berlin Philharmonic and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, with both ensembles in subpar form. It is superseded by the Concertgebouw cycle on Philips, which is currently to be found in Japan. It is respected by those who know it, but curiously for such a great ensemble, the Dutch players have never given us a truly great Beethoven cycle.

To my knowledge, this third and final effort with the London Symphony Orchestra makes its first appearance complete on CD. The playing is surprisingly robust for this group, though they certainly recorded great Beethoven before and since. Jochum's weighty, propulsive and excitable Beethoven features slow tempos without any sense of drag. I've heard more seasoned writers talk about how Jochum was often compared to Furtwängler, but like some of those writers, I don't really understand the comparison. I don't typically like Furtwängler, for starters. This has nothing to do with his Nazi connections, and everything to do with a certain carelessness of technique allied to simply terrible orchestral playing both before and after the Second World War. Rarely if ever was Jochum sloppy, and his generously human take on Beethoven does share some of the qualities that made Furtwängler's Beethoven so revered in some quarters. But Jochum's accuracy and virtuosity is leagues ahead of say, the 1946 Berlin Philharmonic.

Perhaps more importantly than all the political and extramusical baggage is the fact that arguably no one has managed to get the London Symphony Orchestra to sound like this in Beethoven across a whole cycle. Krips has a few nice entries in his cycle, and so (surprisingly) does Haitink. Dorati's Seventh is a sleeper pick for the ages, but he never did get around to all nine symphonies for Mercury. Jochum's cycle is consistent and very moving. If you gravitate towards Wand or Barenboim (on Teldec, not Decca), you'll really enjoy this.

Brahms: I've written elsewhere about Jochum's extraordinary achievements in the symphonic works of Brahms and – aside from Bruckner – this is the music for which the conductor is most remembered. Jochum's first cycle was made with a post-war Berlin Philharmonic, and not only did he obtain staggering results given the time period, but nobody in Berlin has yet been able to match it (though Abbado comes close!) Late in his career, Jochum led the London Philharmonic in these marvelous performances. At first, it might have been disappointing to listeners to discover the Philharmonic had been chosen. After all, EMI had been making important recordings in Dresden, Vienna, and Berlin. The London Philharmonic would have (rightly) been seen as inferior, and maybe it still is.

Even for modern listeners, there's a good chance that some of us missed these recordings the first time around. The cycle was split across two two-disc sets a few years back, and while that might have made sense at EMI, it would probably have been best to just box the cycle up and call it a day. Here at last, everything is sensibly collected, along with the overtures and a smattering of overtures by Beethoven from elsewhere in London. The cycle shows the London Philharmonic in absolutely smashing form. Jochum elicits stunning virtuosity from his players, to the point where one doesn't regret the choice of orchestra at all. Again, comparisons with Furtwängler are telling, because at no point does the older conductor come close to executing similar results in his Brahms. Sure, Furtwängler has perhaps some of the greatest "conceptions" of Brahms ever, but what is a conception if you can't hear it outside of the conductor's head?

Each disc in this box is generously filled, sounds great, and represents each composer faithfully within the "Romantic" and Germanic tradition. Purists will undoubtedly prefer a lighter and more (currently) idiomatic sound, but for those of us who like this kind of thing (and admit it, there's still lots of us), this Icon set is one of the brightest and best in terms of how to acquire all of this music at once. I say this a lot these days, but both seasoned veterans and curious listeners will find endless enjoyment here.

Copyright © 2018, Brian Wigman