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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 Choral (1824) [63:23]
Christiane Karg (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (mezzo), Michael Schade (tenor), Michael Volle (baritone)
Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. 1 December 2012, Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan
BR KLASSIK 900139 [63:23]

The usual order of things is to bring together single disc releases into a subsequent and more economical box set. Mariss Jansons’ Beethoven symphonic cycle with extra Reflections by contemporary composers reverses that pattern. It was released complete in 2013, and is now appearing on single-disc releases at pretty much full price. With acclaim for these recordings on their original appearance BR Klassik clearly sees them as having plenty more mileage.

Unlike the other discs this Ninth Symphony appears as a stand-alone work, without a complementary modern piece. There would have been room for an overture or choral prelude of some kind however, and one has to see the empty space as a missed opportunity. There used to be a time when Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ was seen as the perfect work for your standard CD, but Jansons’ brisk overall timing is comparable with that of Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhausorchester on Decca (see review) who comes in at 62:51. Allow for about 30 seconds of applause with Jansons’ recordings and there’s hardly a cigarette paper between them. Jansons is tighter in the second Molto vivace – Presto movement but a touch broader in the outer movements. By way of orientation, Herbert von Karajan’s 1962 recording for Deutsche Grammophon is 67:01 minutes and in 1977 there is little change at 66:54. Jansons doesn’t sound hurried, but things move along apace in the Adagio molto e cantabile. While this makes for nicely shaped music without indulgent lingering it may be a few touches faster than you are used to.

Much is made of the acoustics of the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, but to make a lovely sound you still have to push the air around in the best possible way, and Jansons has his Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks pushing in all the right directions. Intonation is almost invariably good, and the balance between strings, winds, brass and percussion is beautifully integrated. The booklet has a photo taken at the end of the concert and you can see violins placed antiphonally left and right, cellos and violas sharing the middle and double-basses to the left. This all works admirably, with nice spaciousness as well as that close-knit, almost chamber music feel you want from the more intimate sections of this work.

The vocal soloists are all very good in this performance. Baritone Michael Volle lingers a little over his opening recitative O Freunde but is by no means as hammy as some versions I’ve heard. Tenor Michael Schade is a bit shouty in Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen but pre-echoes the dramatic emphasis in the orchestral passagework that follows. The vocal ensemble work is operatic, but works well in the generally extrovert atmosphere Jansons creates in these sections. The chorus is not particularly forward in the recorded balance but has enough presence to make its impact felt, and its best moments have a truly magical atmosphere. Of the entire symphony, this finale is the most ‘live’ sounding in its energy and excitement, communicating a real sense of triumph of the human spirit. The cheers and applause at the end certainly feel well-earned.

The sung text is given in the booklet for this release, as it apparently was not in that for the box set. Like so many truly great pieces of music, finding a definitive Beethoven Ninth is always going to be something of a fool’s errand. I stand by my admiration for Jan Willem de Vriend with the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra (review) on Challenge Classics, and there are numerous great recordings to be found of this arguably flawed but famously fabulous masterpiece. For a live performance Mariss Jansons is certainly amongst the front runners. You won’t feel yourself short-changed in investing in this particular recording.

Dominy Clements

Previous review (complete symphonies): Michael Cookson



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