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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor Op. 125 ‘Choral’ (1824)
Anne Brown (soprano), Winifred Heidt (contralto), William Horne (tenor), Lawrence Whitsonant (bass)
Westminster Choir
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. live 11 November 1941, Cosmopolitan Opera House, New York.
No text or translation.

I tend to think of Stokowski as more a master of colour than of symphonic argument, but on looking at my shelves – and I am not a Stokowski collector – I see his recordings of Vaughan Williams’s ninth and Shostakovich’s eleventh symphonies, and, on the only occasion I heard him conduct live, it was the famous and incandescent 1963 performance of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony, happily released on record (review). (He encored the closing passage, to the delight of the audience and the consternation of the concert promoters). It turns out that he did not often programme Beethoven’s Choral symphony, but he made two studio recordings of it, one in 1934 and the other in 1967; I have not heard these. The present live performance comes between these two. It was his second appearance with the NBCSO, and the intention was to broadcast it. In the end, only the finale was broadcast, but the engineers recorded the whole work, and so we have it here.

Fortunately, the performance was not in the orchestra’s normal home, the notorious studio 8H which so impaired Toscanini’s recordings, but in what is listed as the Cosmopolitan Opera House (was this the old Met?), and before a paying audience. So it really was a live performance. This is a historic radio recording, with the usual disadvantages: rather steely strings, there’s a light bass and the chorus sounds congested in climaxes. But, having said that, it is not difficult to listen to and Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio has done his usual superb job on what must have been crumbly old tapes.

After what I said at the beginning, I am pleased to report that the dominant characteristic of this performance is the driving line through the symphonic argument. This is a performance which knows where it is coming from – the mysterious opening – and where it is going to – the triumphant conclusion. Although there are lovely passages – the close of the slow movement is quite magical – Stokowski deliberately does not linger but presses the argument. And the finale is, as it should be but does not always succeed in being, the real crown of the work. His team of soloists, two of whom are African-American, do a grand job, particularly in their tricky solo variation; the chorus, too, set to their work with a will and their long-held top A rings out as Beethoven intended. It was with the fast double-fugue after the march passage that I realized that this was going to be a performance which reached the heights. Stokowski handles the changes of mood and pace with great assurance.

He uses, as was customary at the time, the adjustments to the orchestration proposed by Wagner and Weingartner. These can be heard in the first movement third subject, in the second movement trio and the Schrekensfanfare at the beginning of the finale and once again later. Their effect can be summarised as clarifying the lines and bringing out the argument. They are currently unfashionable, but many composers adjust the orchestration after hearing their works live; Beethoven was not able to do so because of his deafness, but, if you are going to perform his symphonies with modern orchestras, something of the kind is necessary. (Actually, the premiere had doubled wind.) The choral finale is sung in English. The translation is not credited – it is not the Lady Macfarren one which used to be used in Britain before it became customary to sing Schiller’s original German.

The notes are minimal and do not include the text of the finale, but those interested in this version will probably have others. Stokowski collectors will want this and others should be interested.

Stephen Barber

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