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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125
Gundula Janowitz (soprano); Grace Bumbry (mezzo-soprano); Jess Thomas (tenor); George London (bass-baritone)
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele; Karl Böhm
rec. 23 July 1963, Bayreuth, Germany. AAD mono
ORFEO C935171B [71:17]

Furtwängler’s post-war Beethoven recordings at Bayreuth (in 1951 and 1954) are legendary. Much less well-known is this performance conducted by Karl Böhm in 1963 to mark two Wagner anniversaries: the 150th of his birth, and the 80th of his death. The live recording (with applause at the end) is issued here for the first time by Orfeo on a single CD under the rubric of Bayreuther Festspiele Live - a series conceived in the spirit of Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner’s ‘Neue Bayreuth’ to communicate outside and beyond the Festspielehaus and extend the music of Wagner and others such as Beethoven to a wider audience.

Böhm’s Bayreuth debut represented the arrival and establishment of a new, younger musical generation. He conducted Tristan in 1962 and the Ring in 1965 with both Meistersinger and this Beethoven 9th in 1963, and then went on to become one of Bayreuth’s defining conductors of the 1960s.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Böhm followed Wagnerian traditions for the strength and disposition of the orchestra and its instruments; the choir was also large at well over 200. Despite such weight, this is not a ponderous or dense performance. From the first movement, although it begins suitably quietly, there is a spring in Böhm’s step and a freshness in his tempi and phrasing.

There are times - such as the middle of the second movement [tr.2] when the strings and woodwinds sound a little forced, mechanical; when they come across as though their playing is just the wrong side of perfunctory. This tends to add to the feeling that Böhm lacks pathos, depth and introspection. Although he was by then in his seventies, he seems less interested in introspection and measured reflection than in bringing a Mozartian transparency to the work.

And, at the same time, he avoids Furtwängler’s impulsive energy. The opening of the fourth movement [tr.4], for instance, has a tenacity and determination, an authority and certainty that leaves little room for sensitivity and rumination. This is not to say that this interpretation lacks nuance or colour. Indeed, it is tempting to think that the audience on that May night in 1824 at the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna would have heard something equally punchy, unfussy, focused. Something which made a tremendous departure from classicism - yet in apposite and accessible ways.

One positive side of this interpretation is indeed its sense of movement; and a clean understanding of the work’s architecture, the journey which Beethoven makes throughout the Symphony’s 72 minutes; and which the composer has made from his First Symphony (a quarter of a century and a hundred opus numbers earlier). So if you are looking for a Ninth which aggressively celebrates the values of universal brother- and sister-hood, the permanence of the human spirit, and the elevation of music itself in the service of peace and delight - a kind of unquestioning fanfare (the performance was given, after all, on the eve of the 1963 season) - this recording will fit the bill.

Böhm’s conception is tight (though not too tight) and focused. It’s collected, somewhat dispassionate. There are moments when a degree of ‘raggedness’ which one would never hear in an orchestra of this status nowadays draws attention to the age of this performance and recording. Böhm’s account is not one which consciously acknowledges other ways of arriving at where he is determined to arrive. It has élan, sparkle, almost. It has verve, energy and transparency. But very few actual moments, if not of surprise, then of stopping us in our tracks and inviting us to listen to this immense creation in new ways. Nothing notably spontaneous or original.

It’s not at all that the performers are (reluctantly) serving their time, plodding through the familiar. But some listeners will miss the thoughtful, the speculative, the awe-struck response.

Less partially compromised, if that’s not too strong a word, is the stellar quartet of some of the best vocal soloists at Bayreuth of those years: Gundula Janowitz, Grace Bumbry, Jess Thomas and George London. They serve to cap the performance with a gravitas that matches the rigour and concentration which marks this account. Janowitz is full of spirit and elegance; her high notes are truly beautiful.

As expected, the acoustic of a recording made over 50 years ago is restricted in the ranges of dynamic and pitch. Nor does the choir sound particularly rich, considering its size. And it too tends to exhibit those feelings, not of a pedantic, but a somewhat routine delivery at those very moments when Beethoven’s sense that joy is unbounded needs to touch us. This does sound more like Mozart than the C19th Romantics. The booklet sets the scene, gives some background and describes the performance. Not an earth-shattering 9th. But a clean and characterful one. Less Romantic, perhaps, than Classical. But well worth investigating.

Mark Sealey



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