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Beethoven: Symphony No 9 / Beecham, Fisher, Et Al

Release Date: 07/31/2007 
Label:  Bbc Legends   Catalog #: 4209   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Sylvia FisherNan MerrimanKim BorgRichard Lewis
Conductor:  Sir Thomas Beecham
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Mono 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 & Thomas Beecham, cond; Sylvia Fisher (sop); Nan Merriman (mez); Richard Lewis (ten); Kim Borg (bs); Royal PO; Edinburgh Festival Ch BBC LEGENDS 4209, mono (71:35) Live: Edinburgh 8/19/1956

& British National Anthem (arr. Elgar)

Much has been made of Beecham’s apparent preference for Beethoven’s even-numbered symphonies; indeed, he Read more left no studio recordings of Nos. 1, 5, or 9. With regard to the latter two, at least, it would seem that Beecham’s aesthetic, which generally dictated the avoidance of profundity and bombast in favor of elegance and grace, would be a major consideration. But this would be an over-simplification; he did, after all, record the “Eroica,” a titanic work in every way, and his performances of Tristan, Die Meistersinger , and The Ring —hardly “lollipops,” any of them—at Covent Garden in the 1930s remain legendary.

Beecham would probably appreciate the irony surrounding the existence of this, his only surviving performance of the Ninth. As recounted in Graham Melville-Mason’s excellent notes, a partial reprint from the Sir Thomas Beecham Society LP issue although not indicated as such, the performance was the result of an institutional act of narrow-mindedness: this was the opening concert of the Festival, the Queen was present, and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland objected to Beecham’s original plan to program the Missa solemnis . “Alle Menschen werden Brüder,” indeed!

The performance itself avoids extremes or mannerisms; overall, it is pretty standard at about 67 minutes. Beecham allows the first movement to unfold its symphonic logic without much pushing or pulling; the music sounds energetic despite the fairly average timing of 15: 06 and the conductor’s age of 77. The Scherzo is taken at a good clip as well; Beecham plays the first repeat but not the longer second one. The third movement is shorter than average at 14:34 (Furtwängler routinely took 20 minutes), mostly because of the unusually explicit contrast between the tempos of the Adagio and Andante sections; this is expressive but always clear-headed music-making, completely different from Furtwängler’s mysticism, although I do find both approaches compelling. Two high points are the attacca to the Finale and the powerful buildup of the main theme in the opening instrumental Allegro assai from measures 92-207 (the recurrence of the opening Presto). Soprano Fisher has her struggles; otherwise the solo quartet and the chorus are strong.

The clear mono sound features the winds rather prominently, including the distinguished execution of the difficult horn part in the third movement (could it have been Dennis Brain? though written for fourth horn, the part is often taken by the principal player) and the important bassoon passages in the Finale. No text is provided, but I doubt that anyone would choose this as a primary (or only) version of the Ninth, so this is not a major drawback.

As with many of the BBC Legends issues, it seems clear enough who the target audience is. Beechamites will want to acquire this recording as a matter of course, and for serious students of the Ninth, this is the only opportunity to hear it performed by one of the most fascinating conductors of the 20th Century. ’Nuff said.

FANFARE: Richard A. Kaplan
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 9 in D minor, Op. 125 "Choral" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Sylvia Fisher (Soprano), Nan Merriman (Mezzo Soprano), Kim Borg (Bass),
Richard Lewis (Tenor)
Conductor:  Sir Thomas Beecham
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1822-1824; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 8/19/1956 
Venue:  Live  Edinburgh, England 

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