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Ode to Freedom
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827
Symphony No.9 in D minor Op.125 (1823) [64:00]
June Anderson (soprano); Sarah Walker (mezzo); Klaus König (tenor); Jan-Hendrik Rootering (bass)
Bavarian Radio Chorus; members of the Berlin Radio Chorus; Dresden Philharmonie children’s choir
Bavarian Radio Orchestra; members of the Saxony State Orchestra, Dresden, Kirov Theatre Orchestra, Leningrad; London Symphony Orchestra; New York Philharmonic Orchestra; Paris Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein 
rec. 25 December 1989, live, Schauspielhaus, Berlin
Video Director : Humphrey Burton
NTSC 16:9; PCM Stereo DD5.1 DTS 5.1; Dolby Digital
EUROARTS 2072038 [94:00] 


World peace was a particular concern of Bernstein. Speaking at
Johns Hopkins University in 1980 and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in 1983, he described his vision of global harmony. His Journey for Peace tour to Athens and Hiroshima with the European Community Orchestra in 1985 commemorated the 40th anniversary of the first dropping of the atom bomb. In December 1989 Bernstein conducted the historic Berlin Celebration Concerts on both sides of the Berlin Wall as it was being dismantled. The concerts were unprecedented gestures of co-operation, the choral singers representing the former East Germany and West Germany, the orchestral players not only both halves of Germany but also the four powers that had partitioned Berlin after World War II. This is a recording of the concert which took place on Christmas Day in the heart of a newly unified Berlin, and was very much Bernstein’s idea. He also stamps his own individual imprimatur on the work, not only in his idiosyncratic interpretation but also by his decision to suit the occasion to change the crucial word Freude (Joy) to Freiheit (Freedom) in Schiller’s Ode sung in the choral finale. It was a touch of genius on Bernstein’s part.

The performance, which was also relayed on a big screen to thousands standing outside in the square in freezing temperatures, is far from perfect, ensemble is often ragged as the cosmopolitan players struggle to follow Bernstein’s far from clear beat. Woodwinds have a distorted sense of intonation, largely due to the wide disparity in their vibrato, and matters are not helped by the doubling of each part. This problem highlights the international nature of the orchestra, a collection of virtuoso players of disparate techniques, training, and traditional sounds ranging from Leningrad to London, and Munich to Paris, and given that the event was hurriedly organised, little chance of compromise or adaptation. There are blunders which would not get past a record producer in the studio, such as false entries in the Andante maestoso section to the words “Seid umschlungen Millionen! Diesem Kuss der ganzen Welt”, which has tested the counting ability of every chorister since 1823. Bernstein is a master theatricalist in his conducting; he sweats, grimaces, smiles, swoons, leaps, and crouches, his stick technique is at many points firm and decisive, at others floppy and vague. Less than a year from death in October 1990, he has amazing energy for a man who has lived all life in the fast lane, but, like Karajan, he is a consummate performer. Between the first and second halves of the symphony (movements two and three) there is a fair gap while the soloists come on to no applause, as well as the now-required orchestral piccolo and double bassoon players. Only after everyone has settled down and there is complete silence, with the camera on him from the midst of the orchestra, does Bernstein start? No, he then proceeds to remove his scarlet-red handkerchief from his tails top pocket and mop his sweat-covered face, then closes his eyes for what seems, and is, an interminable wait before proceeding into the Adagio. He has to be the focal point of the performance at all times. The children in the choir, trained to sing from memory while their adult fellow-choristers have not, were Bernstein’s hope for the future. Now young adults, hopefully they have not forgotten that auspicious occasion, despite the fact that so much cynicism and bitterness now exists in Germany. The affluence of former West Germany has now been diluted by having to share their wealth with their reunited Eastern brothers and sisters, and it could be that the impact of that occasion has lessened or, worse, disappeared. The experience of watching and listening to this performance will go some way to enable us all, German or non-German, to relive those truly momentous days.

Christopher Fifield


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