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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, op.125, “Choral” (1826)
Rye Miyake (soprano), Mihoko Fukimara (mezzo-soprano), Kei Fukui (tenor), Markus Eiche (bass-baritone)
Tokyo Opera Singers
Mito Chamber Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
rec. live, 10-15 October 2017, Art Tower Mito, Mito City, Ibaraki, Japan.
DECCA 483 4431 [68:39]

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has a justifiably grand status in the course of Western music, but this doesn’t mean it necessarily needs vast orchestral and choral forces to make it work well. The Mito Chamber Orchestra is by no means tiny, but even with reduced numbers of strings it can make a powerful sound. This is one of those recordings that benefits from having the volume turned up a little higher than usual, but once you find a decent level the balance snaps into focus, the timpani brass and winds make their full impact, and the clarity of the ostinato notes from the strings in the first movement gives a feeling of promise that this will be a more than half decent ‘Choral’.

Seiji Ozawa is now one of the conducting world’s grandees, and his grey eminence on the front of this release gives it a serious aspect. You will never perceive this work in entirely the same light once you’ve heard Benjamin Zander’s recent version based on revised tempi/metronome markings, and even while Ozawa is by no means a slouch when it comes to the energy in this performance he comes in an entire ten minutes longer, give or take a few seconds for applause at the end. The first movement bowls along nicely, with those instrumental discussions amongst the winds nicely placed, and with plenty of drama in the dynamics and articulation of the whole. Ozawa sticks to convention in tempo for the Allegro vivace second movement, keeping up tension and urgency throughout. The Adagio molto e cantabile is given the ‘full Tchaikovsky’, with string vibrato warming the sound but giving an odd impression against the winds, who initially play without vibrato, raising the temperature later on with the solos and ensemble work before the modulation just before the seven-minute mark. With a full complement of strings such as with the Berlin Philharmonic this would be a less exposed effect, and perhaps only those of us now increasingly used to historically ‘authentic’ playing will be bothered by such things. This is by no means bad music making, and Ozawa doesn’t linger sentimentally over the music in inappropriate ways, but something perhaps a little more ethereal might have been more stirring in contrast with what has gone before.

The finale is divided into seven access points on the CD which us useful, and with Ozawa’s ear from bringing out the dramatic core of this work the atmosphere is once again electric and fiercely forward-looking – you can imagine Berlioz sitting on the edge of his seat at this point. The vocal soloists are all very good. Markus Eiche is stern and convincing in the opening recitative without being shouty, and the ensemble is impressive and operatic without giving the impression of trying to out-sing each other too much. The chorus is not huge, but has plenty of heft and has a respectable recorded balance with the orchestra. These voices also carry much vibrato, but the chorus copes well with Beethoven’s unreasonable demands. The whole thing didn’t have me climbing the walls with excitement in quite the same way as Jan Willem de Vriend did with his Challenge Classics recording (review), but it is inspiring nevertheless, and good to hear a recording in which the individual character of voices and orchestra have their own clarity as well as creating a cohesive whole and perhaps reviving a performance on a scale Beethoven himself might have expected. Alas, the closing moment is crashed by some idiot’s loud ‘bravo’ and the enthusiastic applause has a very crude fade-out indeed. Had it been possible, it would have been nice to have avoided this entirely.

Comparing ‘chamber orchestra’ versions brings up Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Chamber Orchestra of Europe recording on Teldec Classics (review). This has a grander scale to the recording than with Ozawa, more distant and generalised with the strings shimmering rather than close-up and proactive. Harnoncourt is by no means always quicker; his first movement driving forward more, the Molto vivace second movement less so, but by no means sounding slow. Charles Mackerras’ live recording and with a rather noisy audience alongside the Orchestra of The Age of Enlightenment on Signum Classics (review) is another comparison I pulled out, though with its authentic performance credentials this is not on an entirely equal playing field. By comparison I found the strings rather vague in the balance here, the acoustic of the venue playing rather too large a part in the overall effect. Mackerras is always worth hearing, but I wasn’t quite as enamoured of this recording as I has hoped.

Seiji Ozawa has recorded this work before of course, on Philips with the New Philharmonia Orchestra and again for Decca with the Saito Kinen Orchestra. Both of these have their qualities, but neither can quite compare for the directness of communication I feel from this Mito recording. It might not be your first choice in a saturated market, but it certainly deserves your attention.

Dominy Clements

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