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Beethoven Symphony No. 9 "Choral"
Donald Runnicles Conductor
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Norman MacKenzie, Chorus Director

Review by Karl Lozier
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Beethoven Symphony No. 9 "Choral" Donald Runnicles Conductor Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Norman MacKenzie, Chorus Director

CD Stock Number: Telarc CD 80603

 

  The genius, Ludwig Van Beethoven, capped his compositional career with what many music lovers, including me, consider his masterpiece, the Ninth Symphony (Choral). Even more specifically, many people to this day consider it to be the greatest piece of music ever written – period. My guess would be that Handel’s Messiah is the closest competition for that distinction. Diminishing a more universal appeal for the Messiah is its frankly religious appeal and not to all religions.  This Choral symphony, the first and greatest of its kind, goes beyond the boundaries of most religions. This brotherhood of man was the goal of both Beethoven and Schiller (the author of the "Ode to Joy") with their visions expressed in the optimism of the almost hymn-like choral finale.

If you have the slightest interest in classical music, you need to own at least one recording of Beethoven's choral symphony. If you are fairly knowledgeable about classical music you will probably learn nothing new from my brief comments. My personal strong convictions about this composer and composition simply compel me to inform you about some unique things about this fantastic composition. Believe me when I tell you that you have heard the melodies or themes, particularly of the last (choral) movement. From television commercials, to Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, or videos and movies such as Beethoven Lives Upstairs and Immortal Beloved, you have heard it in one form or another.

It took Beethoven about twenty years to use or set Schiller's poem to music with his choral fantasy. There has been controversy for many decades as to the exact word Schiller first used in his poem and then used by Beethoven. The word, Freiheit (to freedom) may have been used originally and not Freude (to joy). Leonard Bernstein in his famous live and recorded Christmas Day performance, after the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall, used the word Freiheit meaning to freedom.  Beethoven had composed nothing of great importance for many years while working on this masterpiece and growing progressively deaf all the while. Most music historians agree that he was so completely deaf that he could not conduct and was not the conductor at the premier performance in Vienna in May of 1824, but he was seated in the midst of the orchestra keeping time with the music. Unfortunately he was still keeping the beat beyond the conclusion (his back to the audience) with great applause that he could not hear. The alto vocalist, Ungar, helped to turn him to face the audience who were still applauding.  Then the audience was visibly shocked by the realization that he was "stone deaf" and had heard nothing and as a result there was an almost literal explosion of admiration mixed with sympathy that erupted. I know of no comparable event in musical history. It was more than twenty years before this masterpiece was performed in the United States.

Probably nothing in the performing arts world ever comes close to unanimous opinions. I am under the idea that lately some musical snobs are also denigrating the forceful uniqueness, power and optimism of this unsurpassed work – possibly because it has become "too popular". For a few decades, centered around nineteen hundred and fifty, conductors and their orchestras started and built up "cycles" of all the Beethoven symphonies. This typically culminated with a long range planned, hopefully historical performance, of this most famous symphony by Beethoven. A clear distinction should be made as his "most popular" symphony is still number five with the famous "fate knocking at the door" beginning notes. These recordings often featured the greatest operatic singers of the time vying for the honor of being recorded in this musical monument. Times have changed and we have not gotten performances where great artists such as Domingo, Pavarotti, Sutherland and Von Stade have made up the finale’s vocal quartet.

There is absolutely no agreement in any aspect of the dozens of performances available or recently available on CD. Would you prefer the best of the conducting efforts (using traditional or later (faster) editions of the score?) or the best orchestral playing, the best choral contribution or the best vocal quartet? Sometimes a bass sings the usual baritone’s part in the quartet. You can have a great deal of choice in recorded sound quality; perhaps you prefer the soloists to be recorded more closely with a stage front presentation to add emphasis to their parts. Your choices are almost unlimited and personally I do not get the impression that any group has been or is making an attempt to create a truly great or historical recording to begin our new century.

This new Telarc CD is very easy and logical to recommend to anyone that does not have a recording of Beethoven’s monumental ninth symphony. It is tough to have a flawless performance by all the forces involved in recording this work. The Atlanta Symphony led by Runnicles and record by Telarc comes as close as anybody in my recent memory. From conducting to vocalists or chorus to the full range natural perspective recording I have to say all is very good to excellent.  Obvious flaws seem to be nonexistent.

On the other hand, in my humble opinion, after repeated listening sessions I am unable to proclaim any aspect as particularly outstanding or setting a new benchmark. In other words possessors of other versions may not find greater insight from this all around excellent recording.

Vinyl lovers might as well stick with your old Solti version on Decca/London or the remastered Mobile Fidelity or Szell with the great Robert Shaw handling his chorus on Epic. Somehow versions on either RCA or Mercury from the "Golden Age" were flawed seriously in one or more areas. The above vinyl versions are available now on CD [London Penguin Series 289 460 622-2] and Szell's now as Sony [SBK 46533]. The Solti version-only the Chicago Orchestra one- is noteworthy for the propulsive and extremely dynamic opening movement and the excellent and almost exciting closeup perspective with the vocal quartet. None of the other recordings overshadow this fine, new and very well recorded Telarc offering of Beethoven's ninth symphony.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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