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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 [71:18]
Irmgard Seefried (soprano); Elisabeth Höngen (alto); Anton Dermota (tenor); Mathieu Ahlersmeyer (bass); Chor der Wiener Staatsoper
Wiener Philharmoniker/Karl Böhm
rec. live, 18 April 1944, Großer Musikvereinssaal, Reichssender Wien, Vienna
MELOCLASSIC MC5006 [71:18]

A cursory glance at the catalogue reveals that there are about four or five Böhm Ninths, virtually one for every decade of his career, with several of the earliest ones having been given a facelift in recent years. The present performance was recorded in Vienna on 18 April 1944, and here receives its first CD release. It makes a valuable addition to the conductor’s discography. According to the booklet notes Böhm repeated the performance two days later in Berlin on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday.

The opening movement is one of rhetorical grandeur and nobility. It has broad emotional sweep and a convincing sense of inevitability in its linear clarity and logical unfolding. The second movement is crisply rhythmic and has a striking directness, with Böhm injecting plenty of energy and forward thrust.

Owning many versions of this symphony, what makes or breaks it for me, is the sublime slow movement. I tend to favour a broad and spacious account, and Böhm always comes up with the goods. For instance, in his 1980 commercial recording with the VPO on DG, made a year before his death, the Adagio clocks in at 18:19. It’s a pity that the remaining movements drag their feet, giving an overall timing of 79 minutes. In this 1944 airing the slow movement is 19:01, but the overall timings of the other movements are more tightly reined in. From just a brief glance at some of the other versions’ Adagios, I discovered that Monteux/LSO, Schmidt-Isserstedt/VPO and Ansermet/L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande all hover at around the 15–16 minute mark. I find this perfectly agreeable. René Leibowitz and the Royal Philharmonic, on the other hand, sprint through it at 12:30, in the worst, uninvolved, lacklustre reading of this movement I’ve ever heard.

For the finale Böhm has amassed an impressive array of soloists and, on the evidence, all were at their peak. Mathieu Ahlersmeyer, an extremely fine bass, is the only one I’ve never come across before and, being born in 1896, was in his late forties at the time of the recording, making him the eldest of the four, but still vocally assured. The Chor der Wiener Staatsoper are outstanding and very well rehearsed. Ensemble is truly on the mark. Soloists and choir respond vitally to Böhm’s inspirational conducting, and their ardent and joyous vocal contributions are uplifting in every way. For a live event, no applause has been retained.

Lynn Ludwig’s audio restoration is pretty outstanding considering the age of the recording. There’s very little surface noise, and a remarkable amount of detail emerges. Michael Waibinger has provided an informative, comprehensive biographical portrait of the conductor.

This release will appeal to those with an appreciation of great conducting. It’s definitely one for the connoisseurs.

Stephen Greenbank



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