Notes and Editorial Reviews
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra is part of Nagano’s acclaimed cycle of the complete Beethoven symphonies. His interpretation of Beethoven’s 9th takes as its motto “Human Misery – Human Love” and puts the finishing touch on his reconception of Beethoven’s symphonies, starting with “Heroes and Men” (Symphony No. 3) to “Ideals of the French Revolution” (Symphony No. 5) and “In the Breath of Time” (Symphonies Nos. 6 and 8). Recorded in the Montreal Symphony’s newly built 2,000 seat auditorium, the critically acclaimed performance garnered a great review from The New York Times for Nagano’s “way of shaping phrases...and bringing out the music’s narrative urgency.” With liner notes written by the
artist, this recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is a grand addition to Mr. Nagano’s interpretations of the great composer’s symphonies.
R E V I E W:
Symphony No. 9
Kent Nagano, cond; Yann Martel (narr); Erin Wall (sop); Mihoko Fujimura (mez); Simon O’Neill (ten); Mikhail Petrenko (bs); Tafelmusik CCh; Montreal SO & Ch
SONY 88691919442 (66:56) Live: Montreal 9/2011
This is the fourth installment in the Beethoven symphony cycle currently in progress from Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony. What distinguishes this cycle from others is the attempt to place Beethoven’s music in a broader context. In the present case, the disc is titled
Human Misery—Human Love
, and the performance includes a short text by writer Yann Martel, spoken by the author in English (before the performance of the symphony) and in French (afterward).
32:6, I reviewed an earlier installment,
Ideals of the French Revolution
, which included a text by Paul Griffiths read to music by Beethoven, and performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and incidental music for
. While I found the performances of Beethoven worthy, the Griffiths pastiche was more problematic and ultimately unsatisfactory.
After an 11-second burst from the opening of the finale of the symphony, Martel’s narrative titled
Where Have You Gone, My Revolutionary Friend?
is heard, apparently recorded in a studio. The friend referred to is a sort of Everyman, who has gone astray after such promising beginnings. The question, I suppose, echoes the revolutionary nature of Beethoven’s music, but I’m skeptical of the relevance of this short poetic envoi to either Schiller or the symphony (but then I’m not an admirer of Martel’s work). The narrative is brief; alternatively, the track is easily skipped.
Luckily, the performance of the symphony itself is a strong one. The first movement opens with edgy strings using little vibrato; the audio production offers admirable clarity and sonic punch within a spacious acoustic, a tribute to the new venue (the Maison Symphonique de Montréal) that was inaugurated with this performance. Urgency is communicated through a moderately brisk tempo, which is sustained throughout the movement; the contrasting lyrical theme is poignantly hopeful. The same sense of urgency carries over into the Scherzo, with its infectious rhythms and buoyant enthusiasm (and its repeats intact). The timpani are impressively thunderous but never overly prominent. The Trio ripples along fluently, a lighthearted little melody amid the bustle of the Scherzo.
The initial (
) tempo of the third movement is not slow, but the feeling of calm and hope that suffuses it is amply transmitted. The pure string tone helps to reinforce the lack of overly emphatic or indulgent emotionalism, and the simple declaration of faith at the end provides an effective coda. The opening of the finale is more diffuse energy than startling interruption, though the cellos and basses are stern enough in their didactic recitation. Bass Mikhail Petrenko has the lighter timbre of a baritone, and sings with lyric sensitivity, accompanied by the nimble orchestra. The vocal quartet blends well and is situated in front of the choruses, bringing a coherence and balance to the sung text (aided by the relatively modest-sized choral contingent). The sprightly
allows tenor Simon O’Neill to hold forth with jaunty panache (an echo of his Wagner roles). “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” is properly devotional, while the double fugue is more
, but is effective nonetheless. The
is exciting, and the purely instrumental coda is
I can understand the thinking behind the decision to provide an extramusical context for Nagano’s performances of the symphonies: There are so many choices in the Beethoven symphony discography that any innovation might just elicit interest in this particular cycle. I hope, though, that if these symphony recordings are collected into a set, the extraneous and unnecessary distractions will be discarded so that the symphonies (and various companion pieces) can be left to themselves.
FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
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