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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 9 in D minor, Choral Op. 125 (1925)
Frances Yeend (soprano); Martha Lipton (contralto); David Lloyd (tenor); Mack Harrell (baritone)
Westminster Choir
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. 18 April 1949, 30th Street Studio, New York (movements 1-3) and 7 March 1953, Carnegie Hall, New York (movement 4). AAD
MUSIC AND ARTS CD-1155 [65’40"]


This recording was made under studio conditions, for Columbia, I presume. It is a slightly puzzling recording in that the finale was recorded nearly four years after the rest of the symphony was set down, and in a completely different venue. I have no idea why this happened. Mark W. Kluge contributes some interesting notes about Bruno Walter but says absolutely nothing about the recording itself or the circumstances under which it was made, which is a pity. I can only presume either that the studio in which the 1949 recording was made wasn’t big enough to accommodate choral forces also and/or that Carnegie Hall was unavailable at the time. This may seem a small point but in fact it’s quite a significant issue in considering this recording.

With the passage of four years, recording technology had obviously moved on a bit. Also, the larger, more resonant acoustic of Carnegie Hall contributes positively to the sound picture in the finale. Thus the finale is presented in generally much superior sound. In the first three movements I found that in loud tuttis the sound became rather congested and the bass line was often indistinct, apart from somewhat booming timpani. When one gets to the finale much more inner and bass detail is reported. The change of venue is not all gain, however, for the choir is placed somewhat backwardly. As a result their singing sounds more muffled and less incisive than I suspect was actually the case in the hall on the day. In fairness, however, I ought to qualify the foregoing remarks by saying that any sonic shortcomings are by no means so serious as to detract from the merits of the recorded performance.

The merits are not inconsiderable. Despite a few small imprecisions of ensemble Walter leads a driving and strongly projected account of the first movement. The interpretation is exciting and involving. The scherzo is vigorous and energetic and the trio is cleanly articulated. In the later stages (around 8’10") there were times when the tempo seemed a little unstable. The relentless rhythm must be a devil to maintain over long stretches.

The slow movement opens at a quite deliberate - but definitely not stodgy - pace. The phrasing is long-breathed and the New York strings play eloquently. I think we hear Walter at his very best here. He leads a glowing and distinguished reading which I found most satisfying. As I indicated earlier, the finale benefits from sound that is at once warmer and more detailed. When the Big Tune appears Walter lays it out smoothly and with dignity. The degree of restraint he shows here pays dividends when the theme is given out by the full orchestra; it’s an impressive moment.

Mack Harrell (father of cellist, Lynn Harrell) is imposing in his opening solo. In fact the solo quartet is good, both individually and collectively. They are quite forwardly recorded. I’ve already commented that, although they sing well, the choir is too recessed. This means that when the solo tenor and male choristers sing their martial episode the soloist - who sings well and with a nice ring - makes a strong impression but the sound of the choral voices is rather muddy. However, overall, the account of the finale is good and the excitement and exaltation that are vital for a successful performance are present and well conveyed.

It is good to have this performance available on CD as it lets us hear Bruno Walter in a central repertoire masterpiece when he was in his prime. The recorded sound imposes some limitations but these are not such as to detract from what is an impressive reading.

John Quinn

NOTE
Since writing the above review I’ve seen Jonathan Woolf’s fine review of a large box of Walter recordings (www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Feb05/Walter_Original_Jacket.htm). That performance uses exactly the same forces as were employed for the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth in this recording. The coincidence seemed too great and Jonathan has confirmed to me that the recording of Bruckner’s Te Deum included there took place on the same day. Clearly that made excellent logistical sense for Columbia, even if the choir in particular must have found it a tough assignment. As Jonathan put it to me, "Tough session!"

Information received

The 1949 Bruno Walter Beethoven 9th was issued by Columbia on two LPs. The fourth movement apparently had some serious sonic problems with overload or IM distortion. Thus Columbia rerecorded it in 1953. The result was issued on a single disk in 1956. IIRC this is based upon the 1956 or 1957 review in High Fidelity.
Alfred E. Krause




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