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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 9, Op. 125 ‘Choral’
Anja Kampe (soprano), Daniela Sindram (mezzo-soprano), Burkhard Fritz (tenor), René Pape (bass)
Wiener Singverein
Wiener Symphoniker / Philippe Jordan
rec. live, 21-22 May 2017, Große Musikvereinssaal (Goldener Saal), Vienna
Full sung text with English translation

This is the fifth release and culmination of the Wiener Symphoniker’s cycle of complete Beethoven symphonies. The completed project ‘Road to Beethoven’ paves the way for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth next year. The orchestra has a long history, and a roster of renowned conductors, including Bruno Walter, Richard Strauss, Wilhelm Furtwängler, George Szell, Hans Knappertsbusch, Herbert von Karajan and Carlo Maria Giulini. It is surprising, then, that this is the first time that Wiener Symphoniker have recorded a cycle of Beethoven symphonies. Acclaimed in many quarters, Philippe Jordan’s series has continued to grow on me with repeated listening.

Composed in 1823-1824 and dedicated to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, Beethoven’s colossal Ninth Symphony known as the ‘Choral’ is one of the most familiar works in the entire classical music repertoire. It is unusual for its massive choral finale, a setting taken from Friedrich Schiller’s ode An die Freude (Ode to Joy). The première of this landmark work took place at Kärntnertortheater, Vienna in 1824 to a most enthusiastic audience response. Each time I hear a performance of the Ninth, I still find it remarkable that it was written by a composer who was profoundly deaf.

Beethoven’s exceptional symphonic legacy is impressively served by a substantial number of excellent recordings. So typical of their time, there are many established, older recordings conducted by for example Furtwängler, Szell, Klemperer, Böhm and Karajan. Steeped in the Viennese symphonic tradition, the Wiener Symphoniker with Philippe Jordan (who made his debut with the orchestra in 2004 and now is in his final season as music director) play on modern instruments. They do use insights of period informed performance practice, for example by employing an orchestra that is not excessively large, or by judicious use of vibrato and original tempi. Jordan is not satisfied with the same old hackneyed style of performance. One senses that he is looking at this work anew, blowing off the dust and breathing life into pages that are almost two hundred years old. For my money, the main qualities of this performance are the high level of focus and precision Jordan sustains, the studied choice of tempi which is very much to my taste, and a satisfying internal balance of the orchestral sections. Admittedly, at times I miss what is a moderate reduction in tonal richness of the established ‘classic’ accounts, for example Furtwängler, especially the deep resonance of the low strings that typically underpins their performances.

The opening movement feels assured and focused, with an ideal level of forward momentum which feels fresh and agile. The heroic quality together with a sense of rage and anguish that I require is satisfyingly present. In the Scherzo, I have heard accounts with a greater sense of emotional uncertainty and others with a distinct undertow of dark rumination in the low strings. Jordan provides a more uplifting performance, strong-willed yet light on its feet, underlining the dance-like character of the writing. Jordan clearly inspires his players in the Adagio, communicating a profoundly satisfying Arcadian quality. The beautifully phrased aspect of the playing stands out here.

The crowning glory of the score is the closing movement with its famous choral setting of ‘Ode to Joy’ which can seem like an independent work. Jordan exercises impressive command over the intrepid climaxes that are so difficult to bring off successfully. I always look favourably at the firm foundation that the sonorous double basses bring to the Presto section, helping to transmit the impression of dark menace that I relish. The quartet of German soloists is well contrasted. Bass René Pape is in commanding form, characterful and focused, soprano Anja Kampe conveys her bright, fresh tone to pleasing effect, tenor Burkhard Fritz is bright and expressive, and the fluid-toned mezzo-soprano Daniela Sindram is in especially fine form. Well drilled by Johann Prinz, the Wiener Singverein are particularly impressive in the dramatic episodes; the choir performs with pleasing unison and notable levels of concentration.

The live recording in the renowned acoustic of Golden Hall of Musikverein, Vienna has a satisfying sound, reasonably bright, clear and well balanced. I was not concerned by any unwanted sound, and the applause has been removed. The essay ‘Transcending Boundaries’, written expertly by Walter Weidringer, is highly informative and interesting to read too. In the booklet, the sung German text is provided, with an English translation placed alongside.

Not surprisingly, there are substantial number of recordings of the Ninth, and the competition is extremely fierce. In my eyes, Wilhelm Furtwängler is one of the greatest ever Beethoven conductors. I know of ten of his performances of the Ninth available on record. For those looking for an ultra-powerful account, a stand-out is Furtwängler’s legendary March 1942 (Alte) Philharmonie, Berlin performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Other conductors here tend to fall short of the levels of sheer ferocity, propulsive climaxes, torment and anger that Furtwängler generated. I am not normally a fan of historic recordings, and the wartime Berlin performance recorded for radio broadcast is already 77 years old. Even so, I can commend three re-masterings with surprisingly acceptable sound: on Société Wilhelm Furtwängler, on Pristine Audio and on the Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings’ recently issued 2019 part of the 22-CD high-end set ‘Wilhelm Furtwängler – The Radio Recordings’. The latter is a high-resolution digital transfer from an original monaural analogue source. As good as the sound is for its age, I recommend caution for those with a strong preference for high-fidelity digital or analog stereo recordings.

Still gratifying is the first recording of the Ninth I ever owned. It came from a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies and overtures by Wiener Philharmoniker under Karl Böhm, a vinyl box set from Deutsche Grammophon, a Britannia Record Club release. Böhm recorded his stirring account in 1971 at Musikverein, Vienna; I now have it on a remastered CD box set on Deutsche Grammophon.

A recent addition to the discography, and worthy of consideration, is the account by conductor Michael Sanderling and the Dresdner Philharmonie recorded in 2017/2018 using a mix of concert and studio conditions at Kulturpalast, Dresden. Sanderling presides over a compelling performance that feels dignified with considerable humanity. Although potent and focused, Sanderling’s version avoids the blood and thunder approach and does not overload the weight of the playing. The Sony recording is available as part of the Dresdner Philharmonie set of the complete Beethoven symphonies, or as a double CD coupled with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13Babi Yar’.

Another engaging performance of the Ninth with a distinctly less weighty approach is Ádám Fischer conducting the Danish Chamber Orchestra, contained in his very recently issued box set of the complete Beethoven symphonies.

In Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Philippe Jordan and the Wiener Symphoniker have produced a recording that will garner many admirers, one of the most compelling accounts heard in recent years.

Michael Cookson

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