Notes and Editorial Reviews
In terms of category, this impressive version of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony joins the ranks of historically informed, apparently modern-instrument performance (though the timpani sound like the old, small, hand-tuned article, played with very hard sticks). It also incorporates the many significant textual corrections unearthed by Jonathan Del Mar for his new Bärenreiter edition of the symphonies; perhaps most striking among these are the restored sections of the bassoon part in the first orchestral variation of the "Joy" theme in the finale, and, later in the same movement, the changed articulation of the horn parts leading into the big 6/8 choral treatment of that theme.
All this being so, the principal rival
version with which Philippe Herreweghe's performance may expect to be compared is Sir Charles Mackerras's Classics for Pleasure recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, thus far seemingly—and culpably—not released in this country by CFP's parent organization, EMI. Mackerras's 1991 taping predated the publication of the Del Mar score, but observed many of its emendations nevertheless, since the two men were in constant touch, and Mackerras was actually able to remake that horn passage at a subsequent session in the light of what was one of Del Mar's latest discoveries. (Presumably we can also expect a version along similar musicological lines in David Zinman's ultra-bargain-priced Arte Nova series, but that we shall have to deal with when it arrives—I don't propose to extrapolate about it from the coupling of the "Eroica" and Fourth Symphonies that I reviewed with mixed feelings in Fanfare 22:4.)
Mackerras's wonderfully vital, intelligent, and musical account of the Symphony—see also my comments on his series in Critics' Corner in the same issue—is a hard act to follow, but in many respects Herreweghe stands up well to the comparison. Recorded vividly—with one important qualification, to be dealt with in a moment—under concert conditions in the restored Arsenal of the eastern-French city of Metz (pronounced "mess," but I can't help that), and using a chorus of 43 voices and a modest string strength of 10-10-7-7-6, his performance makes a thrilling, well-focused impact. Interpretively, he offers many welcome insights, most notably perhaps in his faithfulness to Beethoven's metronome marking (84) for the 6/8 choral double-fugue near the end of the finale, at which very moderate speed the music takes on a new and attractive feeling of relaxed rather than driven exultation. Immediately before this passage, the pianissimo choral chords on the words "über Sternen muss er wohnen" are realized with an airy delicacy that is as magical as it is rare. The trombones in this section of the work, too, make their sforzando accents tellingly, and among a quartet of vocal soloists previously unknown to me are a bass who relishes the high F# in his recitative to splendid effect, and a tenor who responds well to Herreweghe's aptly urgent tempo in his march solo.
If I end by saying that on balance I prefer Mackerras, the phrase "on balance" is in part to be taken literally. Excellent when the music is loud, the recorded sound-perspective severely undernourishes the bass register in piano and pianissimo dynamic. Passages like the mysterious opening of the Symphony are thereby robbed of much of their power—the crucial falling fifths in the double-bass part don't acquire any presence to speak of until well into the crescendo that begins in the 12th measure. There are a number of other considerations that weigh against Herreweghe. His projection of the main theme in its full fortissimo statements is, like much in his performance, thrilling, but Mackerras's is awe-inspiring—listen to the throat-catching sforzando of his high horns at measure 64—and that is an even more appropriate characteristic in this cosmically serious music. Herreweghe's handling of the little "rit." and "a tempo" pairings that occur several times in the first movement draws attention to a certain inflexibility that contrasts unfavorably with Mackerras's glorious yet always disciplined spontaneity. You will enjoy the breathless, and in consequence ineffectively balanced, dash through the second movement's trio section only if you agree with Herreweghe's evident belief that the metronome mark of 116 applies not to halves but to whole-notes. A more serious, though common, flaw is the failure to observe the subtle differentiation between Adagio and Andante tempos in the slow movement—Herreweghe indeed takes the Andante a fraction slower, where Mackerras presses forward with just the right touch of lyrical afflatus. And though she improves later in the finale, soprano soloist Melanie Diener is so flat on her Fif's in the opening vocal variations that the music really seems for a while to have gone into a highly unsuitable D Minor. With all its advantages, which are considerable, the practice of live recording may perhaps be blamed in that the unfortunate singer had no opportunity of correcting a passage that must now embarrass her no end.
Altogether, then, aside from such great premusicological Ninths as those of Furtwängler, Mengelberg, Horenstein, and van Otterloo, and from Muti's fine semimusicological one with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Mackerras's stunning version remains the one to choose—if you can find it. (I was able to order a set from London's Music Discount Centre, a very useful resource in such circumstances.) But Herreweghe, as often in other repertoire, is very far from disgracing himself, and if he goes on to make other Beethoven symphony recordings, I shall approach them with keen anticipation.
– Bernard Jacobson, Fanfare, reviewing original release of this recording Read less
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 9 in D minor, Op. 125 "Choral" by Ludwig van Beethoven
Melanie Diener (Soprano),
Petra Lang (Mezzo Soprano),
Endrik Wottrich (Tenor),
Dietrich Henschel (Baritone)
La Chapelle Royale Paris,
Written: 1822-1824; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 10/1998
Venue: Live Great Hall, Arsenal, Metz, France
Length: 62 Minutes 29 Secs.
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