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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.9 in D Minor, Op.125 “Choral” (1824) [66:07]
Measha Brueggergosman (soprano), Kelley O’Connor (mezzo), Frank Lopardo (tenor), René Pape (bass)
The Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus/Franz Welser-Möst.
rec. live, January 2007, Severance Hall, Cleveland. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 7132 [66:07] 


This recording of Beethoven’s 9th, released simultaneously as a CD and a digital download from iTunes, marks the beginning of a new non-exclusive partnership between The Cleveland Orchestra and Deutsche Grammophon. The arrangement is similar to DG's existing set up with the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  This is a boon for The Cleveland Orchestra, which has not had a regular recording gig since its previous chief, Christoph von Dohnányi, laid down his Beethoven cycle for Telarc in the 1980s.  Welser-Möst's appointment as chief conductor, unlike Rattle's in Berlin, did not come with the promise of a “major label” recording contract.  Since leaving the London Philharmonic Welser-Möst has recorded only sporadically and usually as a guest conductor with youth orchestras. 

The release date for this disc was planned to coincide with a hectic 3 week tour that took the Clevelanders and their chief to nine venues across the USA (see reviews 1, 2 and 3), Great Britain and continental Europe.  I’m sure it was handy to have a disc recently recorded by the touring line up available for sale at these concerts. 

Beyond its value as a calling card, though, I do not think this performance is at all special.  Welser-Möst's view of the score is old-fashioned.  Of course, being old-fashioned is not problematic in itself.  Barenboim, for example, manages to generate excitement in Beethoven without paying too much attention to changes in contemporary performance practice.  There are also scores of recordings available that showcase old conductors being old fashioned when old was new.  The problem with Welser-Möst’s Beethoven 9 is not so much his lack of an awareness of recent Beethoven scholarship, but his lack of a coherent and purposeful view of the score as a whole. 

Take the first movement.  The tempo is about right, but dynamics are flattened and the playing seems matter-of-fact.  The strings lack bite – not wholly the preserve of Vänskä (BIS) and the new cohort of conductors, but very present in the classic Cleveland recording under Szell (Sony).  Other interpreters – Stokowski on Decca, for example – make do without sharp edged articulation, but tend to find a compensatory gravitas in the score.  Welser-Möst does not do this either. 

There are some good points in this performance.  While the opening of the scherzo is slack, it improves as it progresses, with some nicely inflected playing from the winds and growing warmth from the strings.  The adagio is flowing and unsentimental, and all the better for Welser-Möst staying out of the way and allowing his orchestra to play.  The principal horn in particular imbues the solo about 10 minutes in with of winning sweetness.  The balancing of the winds chords towards the close of the adagio is lovely. 

The finale starts badly but improves.  The opening bars should leap from the speakers, but whimper instead.  What happened to the glorious Cleveland brass?  The recitative is not fluent and only at around the 3 minute mark do things seem to settle down. 

The singers are superb at top and bottom.  René Pape is an excellent peacemaker, his rich voice is a soothing balm.  The young Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman is also in excellent voice: bright, fresh and surprisingly full.  I understand DG is planning the release of a disc of her singing songs by William Bolcom some time soon.  That will be a disc to look out for.  The other two soloists are decent, but Frank Lopardo’s first entries sound tentative, and though his tone quickly improves, he has a tendency to rush.  His rendition of the drinking song sounds much too sober for  my liking. 

The acoustic of Severance Hall was always an impediment in the days of Szell, and it remains one to this day.  While this used to result in an excessive dryness to the sound and a compressed dynamic range, it sounds like the engineers have tried to correct those problems here and created new ones instead.  The sopranos of the chorus are too closely miked to the point where individual voices begin to emerge from the choral blend, and the triangle is front and centre in the finale. 

This is not a terrible performance, but at full price it is not at all competitive and even at bargain price it would not deserve a recommendation.

Tim Perry




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