Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 9 in D minor Choral Op 126 [62:04]
Isobel Baillie (soprano); Kathleen Ferrier (contralto); Heddle Nash (tenor); William Parsons (baritone)
London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Bruno Walter
rec. live, Royal Albert Hall, London, 13 November 1947
MUSIC & ARTS CD1243 [62:04]
This recording has been available for some time in other transfers but the present issue derives from restorations by Andrew Rose for Pristine Audio in 2008 and Aaron Z Snyder in 2010. I have not heard the earlier versions so that I cannot compare them, but the results on the present disc certainly sound remarkably good for their date - much better than many live recordings from ten or even twenty years later - especially bearing in mind the notoriously difficult acoustic of the Albert Hall as it was at that time. The result is that one can concentrate on the performance without too many distractions. Admittedly there are some remaining problems. The balance is at times odd, with the timpani very prominent, the first violins are apt to disappear unpredictably into the distance, and there are moments of severe congestion, but there is nothing here that seriously obtrudes in listening to the performance. It does help to be able to imagine what is missing at times and to have an idea of what the live balance would be, but this is clearly an issue to appeal essentially to those who know the work well already so that this should not be too much of a problem.
I find it difficult to imagine concert life in London so soon after the war in a city dominated in my childhood memory by bomb sites and shortages. It is a pity that the brief notes in the booklet do not mention what else was on the programme for this concert or say anything else about its context but what matters is the performance itself. It is powerful and energetic - not words I would use about Walter’s later recordings but very obviously in the same exciting vein as the superb Met Fidelio of 1941 that Naxos reissued some years ago. The first movement is fierce rather than mysterious - possibly the recording has something to do with this - and the second very lively, if short on repeats. The wonderful lyrical approach to the slow movement leads to a finale that for once seems to be treated as a whole rather than a series of short sections and to lead inexorably towards the final release of energy at the close.
This is a live performance and not everything is perfect. To my surprise Heddle Nash sounded effortful at first whereas William Parsons, despite a somewhat dry tone, is much better than I had expected. The two ladies meet most of the formidable requirements of their roles as well as you would expect - a pity that there is so little of them. The choir are also very good and I imagine that occasional indistinctness to be the result of the recording and the hall rather than their performance. The orchestra are generally good despite some occasional faults of intonation and ensemble. If anything these add to the excitement of the occasion. The audience are allowed some brief applause at the end and provide a few coughs and other noises during the music but these are not too obtrusive.
All in all this is an issue which will appeal to any admirer of the conductor or to listeners wanting to hear a performance of the Choral which stands somewhere between his great contemporaries Toscanini and Furtwängler. This is certainly not for anyone without a more modern and better recorded version of the Symphony in their collection but it is very well worth hearing for its own merits and as an instructive comparison with the modern mainstream of historically informed performance.
Very well worth hearing.