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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.9 in d minor, op.125 Choral (1826)
Venceslava Hruba-Freiburger (soprano)
Doris Soffel (mezzo-soprano)
James Wagner (tenor)
Gwynne Howell (bass)
Leipzig Radio Chorus
Gewandhaus Chorus
Gewandhaus Orchestra/Kurt Masur (conductor)
Recorded live in the Gewandhaus, Leipzig, during 1991
Rodney Greenberg (video direction)
ARTHAUS DVD 100 296
[67'20"]
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As the only currently available version of Beethovenís Ninth in this format and as the document of one of the more enduring conductor-orchestra relationships during the last half-century, this DVD would appear to hold a certain amount of interest. After Masur's quarter of a century as chief conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, its members are evidently adept at translating the batonless jerks, punches and sweeps which constitute his conducting style, for they respond to his gestures with a precision which verges on the uncanny. Masur stands isolated on his podium, a good ten feet away from the front desks of strings, sometimes glaring at them, sometimes staring into space and perhaps hearing his own Beethoven Nine in his head (contemporary accounts suggest that the composer did the very much same at the first performance). I hope it was more interesting than the one on this disc.

The first movementís opening tremolos over bare fifths, which Furtwängler likened to the very process of Creation, are heard over a screen shot of the scoreís first page. What you hear is as prosaic as what you see: bare fifths, no sense of tension at the impending tutti irruption which will give form to those fifths. It sets the scene ideally for a performance which apparently seeks to minimise conflict and to promote tonal beauty and uncomplicated flow. The orchestra has a communal ownership of a seamless legato, the cultivation of which has often been thought a conductorís greatest achievement (herein lies the root of Karajanís success with the Berlin Philharmonic). Thereís no reason I can see why a beautiful noise should preclude the achievement of a thoughtful and distinctive interpretation, yet it does so here. Tempi rarely vary from a sensible mean between the Romantic styles of old and the metronome marks adopted by those who attempt to follow the composerís, though they tend more towards the former. Too often - in fact, nearly all the time - one note follows another for concert-hall convention rather than any felt sense of inner logic or struggle - qualities which the work manifests in every bar. Lack of consistency undermines the former and lack of drama precludes the latter.

A couple of examples: when Masur has allowed very little relaxation during the slow movement, the ritenuto he applies to its last note strikes a note not only false but pointless. During the course of the movement he has relied on the stringsí potential for cantabile playing, which they deliver but with remarkably little sense of how special this music is: I wonder if they would treat the first fiddle part of a late quartet in the same, blithe way. Likewise, I canít see or hear any justification for the timpanist to play his four offbeat interjections in the Scherzoís second half (which is unrepeated) so that each is successively quieter than the last. The first is marked forte; no diminuendo is marked, and none makes sense, for each is a rip in the seamless threads of quavers in the violins, not a part of the same fabric as Masur treats it. Yet the horns which should gradually gain prominence at the start of the Scherzo proper are denied their marked crescendo. The tutti outburst which should silence them thus dissipates no tension, for none has been generated.

The last movement's soloists are well-matched and the choir well-drilled; this is not really enough to characterise Schiller's aggressive text, alternately beseeching, fist-waving and exalting, but it accords with Masur's conception as a whole. It leaves me in no better position than the baffled critic of the Wiener allgemeine Theater-Zeitung, who on May 13 reported of the premiere six days earlier, 'After hearing one of these immense compositions, one can scarcely say more than that he has heard them.'

Peter Quantrill


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