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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1822) [67:01]
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano); Elisabeth Höngen (mezzo); Julius Patzak (tenor); Hans Hotter (bass)
Wiener Singverein
Vienna Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Musikvereinsaal, Vienna, November-December 1947
EMI CLASSICS 4768782 [67:01]

Given Herbert von Karajan's status as a conductor, his first studio Ninth automatically acquires documentary importance. But is it really a Ninth for the ages?
The first movement, unfortunately, mostly offers foreshadowings of the "bad Karajan," the conductor who valued soft edges and a specious "refinement" over such niceties as clarity and tight ensemble. The opening is hushed to the point of murkiness - the darting string motifs barely stand out against the tremolos and the sustained horns - as is the analogous passage at 5:17, near the opening of the development. One might attribute the dull, prevailingly grey tutti sound to the monaural recording, save that Karajan drew similar sonorities from the Vienna orchestra well into the stereo era, especially in their Decca sessions. Sluggish, heavy basses render the punctuating cadences soggy, most notably at 12:14, though the earlier ones aren't much better. The turbulent buildups churn mightily, but they're not always tightly bound - the outbursts at 13:09 and following, for example, are a smear. It's all a lot of sound and fury, probably signifying something.
After an emphatic introductory statement, the Scherzo - shorn of repeats save for the first, short one in the Trio - is incisive, accelerating slightly during the fugato, decelerating by a similar degree in the first tutti. By 2:48, however, Beethoven's sprightly 6/8 rhythm has audibly settled into a lumpish 2/4, a hazard in the finest performances; the timpani are boomy and, in the recap, diffuse in intonation. The Trio scurries crisply, with excellent wind articulation.
All of a sudden, the "good Karajan" emerges. The Adagio opens simply and tenderly - not hustled along in the recent "historically correct" mode, not dragged out in pseudo-profundities - with the clarinets injecting light into the predominant dark sound. The Andante moderato seems a bit fast to start, but settles into a pleasing cantabile. The variations are poised and flowing, while allowing sufficient space for the unfailingly lovely, burnished violin filigree. The famous horn solo is bathed in velvet; the fanfares arrive without undue aggression, although soggy timpani are a drawback in the first of them. Beautiful.
The finale is an extended case of swings and roundabouts. The opening outbursts get a bit scrambled, but the 'cello and bass recitatives are lively and communicative, a feeling that persists into the main theme, though the variations suffer some slurry playing. The contrasts at the little woodwind reflection (track 5, 5:58) are overdrawn, though this is a passing flaw. The young Hans Hotter sounds surprisingly light and baritonal in the recitative, to the point of riding it slightly sharp - though the vocal freedom is gratifying - but then he sits too squarely on the beats in the theme. The soloists' variations fare better, each flowing well into the next, but the third strophe's choral response abruptly speeds up (a side-join?). Patzak's tenor proves a bit light for the end of the march, though elsewhere his vocal ease is refreshing. Karajan makes something special out of choral dynamics and textures at "Seid umschlungen, Millionen" - the Wiener Singverein, by the way, is well-balanced throughout - after which a flatfooted double fugue brings things squarely back to earth. The soloists prove well-matched for the "Alle Menschen werden Brüder" quartet - even Höngen, buried in the texture, can more or less hold her own - but the frantic coda is more a bid for (virtual) applause than a really satisfying culmination.
Walter Legge's original production has held up well in the remastering. The background rustle from the source discs, and  a modicum of ambient white noise, while nearly constant, are unobtrusive. Oddly, EMI separately tracks the slow movement's Andante moderato, but not any of the subsequent variations. More logically, the finale gets new tracks at each of the seven major sections.
Given Karajan's subsequent re-recordings of the Ninth, I'd not pay this one any special mind. My favorite is the 1963 DG - the one from what a generation of LP collectors called the "Bicentennial" set. While I'm not a great fan of the Berlin Philharmonic's mode of attack and release - a sort of carefully cultivated imprecision - their ineffable sense of Beethoven "tradition" is stronger than the Vienna orchestra's; and their shinier, more varied timbres, with supple, translucent woodwinds in the Adagio, consistently ravish the ear.
Stephen Francis Vasta


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