Symphony no.9 in D minor, op.125 - "Choral"
Gabriela Benackova, Vera
Soukupova, Vilem Pribyl, Karel Prusa, Prague Philharmonic Choir, Czech
Philharmonic Orchestra/Lovro von Matacic.
Live, Prague 6.6.1980, sung in Czech
Praga Productions PR 250
By tradition, the Prague Spring Festival opens with a performance of Smetana's
Ma Vlast and closes with Beethoven's Ninth. Foreign guest conductors
have been called from time to time and in 1980 it was the turn of Matacic.
The recording is generally good, with slightly recessed violins and a trumpet
which dominates the climaxes (but since he sometimes plays out and on other
occasions retreats into the texture, there would seem to be the hand of the
conductor in this). The choir has good presence.
After a notable start in the EMI stable with some Philharmonia recordings,
Lovro von Matacic had a rather fitful recording career. In England he was
virtually forgotten until the last few years of his life but elsewhere he
was more appreciated. In Italy he was a much-loved figure, usually able to
get the best out of the recalcitrant Italian Radio orchestras, and he gave
a Beethoven cycle in Milan in 1962 which proved, in a recent re-broadcast,
to have a certain rugged authority.
It is the two middle movements which give most pleasure here. In the scherzo,
in spite of a few untidy moments, he certainly unleashes the Czechs' innate
sense of rhythm - it sounds like a slavonic dance. The whooping horns he
encourages are in more doubtful taste. In the slow movement the orchestra's
pastoral-sounding woodwind and unforced string quality are a pleasure in
themselves, but the conductor sees that they dialogue with one another and
shapes the phrases with loving little nudges and holdings-back that might
be more in place in Dvorak than in Beethoven. However, he never exaggerates,
and the basic pulse remains steady.
With the first movement I am less happy. There is little to fault but at
times the conductor seems not very interested in the proceedings, allowing
the orchestra to proceed on automatic pilot. In Milan in 1962, at a slower
tempo, he showed far more grip.
A finale in Czech is a bit of a jolt (the booklet does warn you in small
print, but I hadn't noticed). We know Josef Veselka's Prague Philharmonic
Choir to be a magnificent instrument and the performance has a wholehearted
quality which can be enjoyed. But there is again a lack of grip; in the first
choral section, each variation settles into a tempo of its own so that any
sense of an unfolding structure is lost.
The truth is that Matacic was a conductor who shaped the performance the
orchestra gave him rather than transformed it. If you listen to the slow
movement in the Milan version, with string players from a quite different
tradition, you hear another kind of performance. An artist's
interpretation can certainly change in 18 years, but the child is father
to the man. Matacic's ability to understand the orchestra's psyche and then
mould it explains both why orchestras loved him and why he never quite reached
Reviewing the Monteux Ninth I concluded
that, whatever the reservations, this was one of the Ninths that count. I
don't think the present one is, though I enjoyed hearing it once and would
perhaps return for the middle movements, and that for the particular qualities
of the orchestra, while recognising Matacic's ability to make those qualities