Enjoy the Gothenburg
Symphony Orchestra wherever you are. App available for iOS and Android
Decca Phase 4
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1822) [67:01]
Schwarzkopf (soprano); Elisabeth Höngen (mezzo); Julius
Patzak (tenor); Hans Hotter (bass)
Vienna Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Musikvereinsaal, Vienna, November-December 1947
Given Herbert von Karajan's status as a conductor,
his first studio Ninth automatically acquires documentary importance.
But is it really a Ninth for the ages?
first movement, unfortunately, mostly offers foreshadowings of
the "bad Karajan," the conductor who valued soft edges
and a specious "refinement" over such niceties as clarity
and tight ensemble. The opening is hushed to the point of murkiness
- the darting string motifs barely stand out against the tremolos
and the sustained horns - as is the analogous passage at 5:17,
near the opening of the development. One might attribute the
dull, prevailingly grey tutti sound to the monaural recording,
save that Karajan drew similar sonorities from the Vienna orchestra
well into the stereo era, especially in their Decca sessions.
Sluggish, heavy basses render the punctuating cadences soggy,
most notably at 12:14, though the earlier ones aren't much better.
The turbulent buildups churn mightily, but they're not always
tightly bound - the outbursts at 13:09 and following, for example,
are a smear. It's all a lot of sound and fury, probably signifying
an emphatic introductory statement, the Scherzo - shorn
of repeats save for the first, short one in the Trio - is incisive,
accelerating slightly during the fugato, decelerating
by a similar degree in the first tutti. By 2:48, however,
Beethoven's sprightly 6/8 rhythm has audibly settled into a lumpish
2/4, a hazard in the finest performances; the timpani are boomy
and, in the recap, diffuse in intonation. The Trio scurries crisply,
with excellent wind articulation.
of a sudden, the "good Karajan" emerges. The Adagio opens
simply and tenderly - not hustled along in the recent "historically
correct" mode, not dragged out in pseudo-profundities -
with the clarinets injecting light into the predominant dark
sound. The Andante moderato seems a bit fast to start,
but settles into a pleasing cantabile. The variations
are poised and flowing, while allowing sufficient space for the
unfailingly lovely, burnished violin filigree. The famous horn
solo is bathed in velvet; the fanfares arrive without undue aggression,
although soggy timpani are a drawback in the first of them. Beautiful.
finale is an extended case of swings and roundabouts. The opening
outbursts get a bit scrambled, but the 'cello and bass recitatives
are lively and communicative, a feeling that persists into the
main theme, though the variations suffer some slurry playing.
The contrasts at the little woodwind reflection (track 5, 5:58)
are overdrawn, though this is a passing flaw. The young Hans
Hotter sounds surprisingly light and baritonal in the recitative,
to the point of riding it slightly sharp - though the vocal freedom
is gratifying - but then he sits too squarely on the beats in
the theme. The soloists' variations fare better, each flowing
well into the next, but the third strophe's choral response abruptly
speeds up (a side-join?). Patzak's tenor proves a bit light for
the end of the march, though elsewhere his vocal ease is refreshing.
Karajan makes something special out of choral dynamics and textures
at "Seid umschlungen, Millionen" - the Wiener
Singverein, by the way, is well-balanced throughout - after which
a flatfooted double fugue brings things squarely back to earth.
The soloists prove well-matched for the "Alle Menschen
werden Brüder" quartet - even Höngen, buried in the
texture, can more or less hold her own - but the frantic coda
is more a bid for (virtual) applause than a really satisfying
Legge's original production has held up well in the remastering.
The background rustle from the source discs, and a modicum of
ambient white noise, while nearly constant, are unobtrusive.
Oddly, EMI separately tracks the slow movement's Andante moderato,
but not any of the subsequent variations. More logically, the
finale gets new tracks at each of the seven major sections.
Karajan's subsequent re-recordings of the Ninth, I'd not pay
this one any special mind. My favorite is the 1963 DG - the one
from what a generation of LP collectors called the "Bicentennial" set.
While I'm not a great fan of the Berlin Philharmonic's mode of
attack and release - a sort of carefully cultivated imprecision
- their ineffable sense of Beethoven "tradition" is
stronger than the Vienna orchestra's; and their shinier, more
varied timbres, with supple, translucent woodwinds in the Adagio,
consistently ravish the ear.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
Donate and get a free CD
Follow us on Twitter