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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.9 in D minor Op.125 ‘Choral’
Elisabeth Söderström (soprano)
Regina Resnik (contralto)
Jon Vickers (tenor)
David Ward (bass)
London Bach Choir
London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Monteux, conductor
Recorded at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London in June 1962
WESTMINSTER The Legacy 471 216- 2 [68.32]

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In the days of vinyl the Westminster label, coupled to Britain’s Nixa records in the 1950s, became not only familiar but also a force to be reckoned with. At the start its star conductor was the German, Hermann Scherchen, though their stable of solo artists included such distinguished names as Paul Badura-Skoda and Jean Fournier. With the development of stereo sound in 1956 the catalogue began to broaden with even greater names such as Rodzinski, Leinsdorf, Abravanel, Knappertsbusch, Barenboim, Peerce, Stich-Randall, Forrester, Sills and Monteux. They used the single microphone ‘natural balance’ recording technique and their best work is now being reproduced on CD.

Pierre Monteux (1875-1964) was 87 when he made this recording. He was a diminutive figure, corpulent with a Colonel Blimpish appearance dominated by his bushy moustache, looking rather like a French version of the British comedian Jimmy Edwards. Like his contemporary colleagues Stokowski and Klemperer, and like Günter Wand today, he was enjoying an Indian summer of a career while in his eighties (he had just two more years to live). He started his childhood studies as a violinist and his career as an orchestral player, and as a conductor it was his appointment as conductor of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes and its association with Stravinsky’s music which launched him. The 1913 scandalous succès d’estime of the Rite of Spring in Paris is well documented, then he worked with Debussy and Ravel to create their new works, such as Jeux and Daphnis et Chloë respectively. After a couple of years at the Met in New York (1917-1919) he took on the union-troubled Boston Symphony Orchestra for a while, and then in 1936 the San Francisco Symphony, becoming a US citizen in 1942. In 1961, at the age of 86 and demanding a 25 year-contract with the option of renewal, he was unanimously appointed chief conductor of the LSO, with whom he works on this disc and who clearly play their hearts out for him. His platform manner was unostentatious yet authoritative, for he had a phenomenal ear and, though not an orchestral trainer, he had one of the widest repertoires in the profession.

This is a revelatory performance of the Choral symphony. It may not be entirely unblemished but there is lightness of touch, transparency of texture, and some fine individual playing from members of the orchestra as well as excellent singing from the distinguished cast of singers and chorus in the finale. There’s no hint of stodginess in Monteux’s widely varied choice of tempi, a striking feature from the very outset. There is a point about eight minutes into the Adagio where the music can meander and drift shapelessly as it fragments into various solos taken around the orchestra (always a deathtrap moment in the theme and variation principle) but Monteux avoids it cleverly by a driving speed which nevertheless retains the space this music needs for all the ‘small’ notes. In the famous finale the recording balance is somewhat destabilised with all the singers rather distant, but on the other hand a lot orchestral detail emerges, which is often obscured. The tempi for the finale are on the steady side but Monteux gives it all a sense of dignified, stately progression (Vickers strains at the leash at ‘Jauchzet, Brüder’). The chorus provide a full-bodied texture, just a hint of strain in the sopranos in the final stretches (‘Sei willkommen Millionen’), the tenors (following their solo kinsman) try to rush away (‘Such ihn über’m Sternenzelt’), the words as clear as one can reasonably expect in this almost unsingable work. The coda is thrillingly fast and conducted with the youthful exuberance of a man sixty years his junior. If you don’t know this recording, you should.

Christopher Fifield


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