Album title: Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major op. 68 'Pastorale'
Performers: Wojciech Rajski conducts the Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra
Label: Speakers Corner TACET L 984
Playing time: Playing time: 23’19”/18’14”
Recorded: March 2008

Answer this question honestly. Do you have any preference or bias when it comes to the nationality of conductor and orchestra performing a Beethoven symphony? Of all composers, Beethoven is universal enough to render this question essentially pointless. Yet even those who think they themselves open-minded enough would most likely not think of a Polish conductor and orchestra as their top choice - myself included.

Well, it’s time to think Polish for Beethoven. In 1982, conductor Wojciech Rajski assembled some twenty talented young string players of his country to form a string ensemble. That he christened Polnische Kammerphilharmonie, PKP for short -Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1984 the string ensemble expanded into a full orchestra and "since then won a regular place in German musical life" as reported in perhaps the only one piece of online information I could find. A biography of Rajski is even harder to find and the Tacet program notes are my only source of reference. Born in 1948 in Warsaw, he graduated with honors from the Warsaw Academy of Music, furthering his studies in Vienna and Cologne, becoming a leading conductor at the Bonn Orchestra of the Beethovenhalle and teaching conducting at the Frankfurt Music Academy since 1998.

Strangely enough, my first encounter with Rajski and his chamber orchestra dates back almost twenty years and not for German music. It was their 1991 release [Marco Polo 8.223396] featuring works for piano and orchestra by three Taiwanese contemporary composers with one of my favourite pianists Chai-Hsio Tsai as soloist. The music (written Western style with Chinese accents) was brilliant and the performance great. You can bet that Rajski and the PKP have concertized in China and Japan, not to mention the rest of the world and some of the world’s most prominent music festivals. The orchestra also has appeared with renowned soloists such as Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Kogan, Szeryng, Dumay, Arrau, Zimerman, Eschenbach, Sabine and Wolfgang Meyer. They have made over 30 CDs for labels like Claves, Le Chant du Monde, EMI, Thorofon, CPO, Midas and Wifon.

Apart from classical standards by Corelli and Mozart, Chopin, Copland and Bacewicz, one interesting off-the-beaten-track cover by Rajski and the PKP are the complete (?) works for violin and orchestra by Polish Paganini Karol Lipinski on the German label CPO.

At first I couldn’t stop thinking how a Polish conductor with such an eclectic musical taste would fare in the conformed realm of Beethoven's symphonies. After sampling the Pastorale from Rajski’s almost completed cycle (the Choral is yet to come) which has received raves from all four corners of the earth, I have to join the critics' circle and give this recording two thumbs up – one for the refreshing interpretation of the work and one for the exceptional sonic quality. Trivial or not, the five moments (marked with descriptive subtitles and even names of birds being portrayed) are like five tone paintings that recreate nature in the most imaginative ways.

Rajski rides on this imagination and takes it to a high emotional level. His tempi are in sync with the listener's pulse, capturing the pastoral mood and atmosphere. Whether it’s arriving at the country side or relaxing by the brook, one can feel the heart beat gently or the streams of thoughts flow with meandering streams. There’s an airy lightness in the orchestral sound that translates directly to lightheartedness. You know what comes after: country dance, thunderstorm and peasant thanksgiving. Opportunity for dramatic contrast you’d say? Sorry, not with Rajski. He maintains the same leisurely consistency and sensitivity. His country dance is truly rustic and simple at heart, so transparent that the simple joys of simple folks make you feel warm. Such transparency also works at another level - the audiophile’s. The thunderstorm is so transparent in fact as to become three-dimensional. The concluding thanksgiving is blessed with candor. Throughout the entire performance, I never thought of drama or climax, just nature and life.

Tacet’s Tube Only recordings means the natural timbres and glowing warmth of the orchestral sound can be optimized and faithfully preserved with all-valve kit from microphone to mixer to recorder. This 2008 recording makes another strong case for AAA transcriptions to digital.