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,
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.