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Download: Classicsonline

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor Choral, Op. 125 (1824) [63:58]
Overture: Leonora No. 3, Op. 72a (1806) [13:27]
Edith Didrup (soprano); Elsa Brems (mezzo); Thyge Thygesen (tenor); Holger Byrding (bass)
Danish Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra/Nicolai Malko
rec. 30 January 1955, Copenhagen
Experience Classicsonline

This disc has been issued by Danacord to celebrate the 2009 Nicolai Malko conducting competition, which took place in Copenhagen in May. The recorded live performance reissued thus dates from January 1955, which was the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Malko’s first performance with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The coupling of the third Leonora Overture of Beethoven with the Ninth Symphony formed the complete concert programme on that occasion, and it is found on this generously filled single CD.

Nicolai Malko (1883-1961) was one of the great conductors of the 20th century, and his work with the Danish Radio Orchestra was consistent and enduring. Only during the war years was the relationship interrupted, and it was resumed immediately afterwards. Since this issue is very much a celebration of Malko’s relationship with Denmark, it is no surprise that the accompanying documentation should focus in this direction rather than towards the music. But why need it be the one at the expense of the other? Even a short note on the Beethoven compositions, and the texts and translations of the symphony’s finale, could have been possible in serving the needs of the purchaser, and had the effect of turning this recording into a viable addition to the catalogue. As it stands, this is clearly directed at the historical-specialist category.

By 1955 orchestral recordings were becoming quite full-toned, and parts of this concert have richly sonorous climaxes. The Leonore Overture No. 3, which comes first, is taut and dramatic, but its more lyrical moments are often undermined by intrusive contributions from the audience. This is a phenomenon that is still very much alive today, more than fifty years on. Why is it that coughers feel that their birthright is best indulged when the music is at its most restrained dynamic level?

The first movement of the symphony is impressive, and thankfully it suffers less from audience participation. The discipline of the orchestral ensemble is a notable characteristic, and helps brings an emphatic and unequivocal conclusion. 

The second movement Scherzo is again tightly controlled and the dramatic rhythms are nothing if not impressive. While the timpani do not have the benefit of precisely focused modern sound, the player’s contributions still make their mark. In this movement should we take Beethoven’s metronome marking at face value? The problem of the tempo for the contrasting Trio section is cunningly solved by Malko adopting lyrical phrasing at a relatively quick speed, in the manner for example undertaken by Günter Wand in his thoroughly recommendable recording of the symphony (RCA Red Seal 74321 68005 2). Malko is ungenerous with repeats, however, whose inclusion can add a full five minutes to this movement. Had he indulged so, of course, the single-disc option would not have been available to Danacord.

The slow movement has an eloquent relationship of tempi between the initial Adagio and the later Andante, whose theme was famously described by Sir George Grove as ‘guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of strong men with whiskers’. Occasionally the challenges and pitfalls of live recording are experienced in this movement, as when the fourth horn does not quite manage to bring off his famous solo.

And so to the finale. It is here that both performance and recording encounter problems. The initial hubbub sounds more scrappy than it might, while the ensuing recitative is not ‘in tempo’, as Beethoven requested, but indulgently expressive. When the voices arrive there are all manner of problems in terms of recorded balance, but they are chiefly in the area of soloists too close, chorus too distant. The bass Holger Byrding makes a strong impression with an arresting initial solo, but he spoils matters somewhat by letting the rhythm sag. On the credit side Malko achieves a suitable ebb and flow of tension and relaxation as the variations proceed, while the final bars are as exciting and invigorating as could be.

Terry Barfoot 


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