Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (HQCD review)

Martti Talvela, James King, Marilyn Horne, Dame Joan Sutherland; Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna State Opera Chorus. HDTT HDCD263.

Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt was among those older conductors who, luckily for us, lived long enough into the stereophonic age to have left us any number of fine stereo recordings. He was one of an elite group of conductors that included people like Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Fritz Reiner, Rafael Kubelik, Karl Bohm, Eugene Jochum, and their like. There were other conductors who came along during and after their tenures who offered more glamor, like Herbert von Karajan, or more pizzazz, like Georg Solti, and conductors like Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner who performed on period instruments using period practices. But it’s hard to beat the grace and refinement the older hands brought to the music, especially to Beethoven. On the present disc, the folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) bring us Schmidt-Isserstedt’s classic 1965 recording of the Beethoven Ninth, and it couldn’t be better.

Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote and premiered his Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, in 1824, and it would be his final completed symphony. Its use of vocals in the final movement gave it the title “Choral Symphony,” and the work proved to be at least as revolutionary as his Symphony No. 3. There are critics to this day who consider the Ninth the greatest piece of music ever written, and it’s hard to argue with them.

We can learn a lot about Schmidt-Isserstedt’s style from his handling of the first movement, the Allegro, ma non troppo, un poco. It sounds exactly right (Schmidt-Isserstedt’s handling, not Beethoven’s tempo markings). To give you an idea of that “rightness,” I compared his timing for the movement with other recordings I had on hand: Solti: 17:39; Jochum: 16:31; Schmidt-Isserstedt: 16:26; Bohm: 14.54; Norrington: 14:13; Zinman: 13:35. So Schmidt-Isserstedt is pretty much in the middle of the crowd when it comes to tempos, yet the pace actually seems quicker because he puts such emphasis on dynamic contrasts, making his interpretation as lively as any of the others. Still, it never seems hurried. In each movement, Schmidt-Isserstedt takes the time to elucidate, illuminate, and clarify every note.

And so it goes, always with Schmidt-Isserstedt keeping a bounce in his step but never overstepping the bounds of classical propriety. His is a thrilling yet elegant performance. The third-movement Cantabile is as beautiful as any I’ve heard, and then comes that big finish: the “Ode to Joy,” based on the poem by Friedrich Schiller and sung here by probably the finest quartet ever assembled for the occasion: Martti Talvela, bass; James King, tenor; Marilyn Horne, mezzo-soprano; and Dame Joan Sutherland, soprano. Along with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the best ensembles in the world, and the Vienna State Opera Chorus at the top of their game, one could not ask for more.

This is not a flashy Ninth, not a monumental one, not a grandiose one, not a zippy, rushed one. Schmidt-Isserstedt’s account is simply a most-fulfilling, most-pleasing, most-rewarding one. It’s a dignified, spacious reading, well balanced and relaxed, yet invariably riveting, a performance that is hard to fault and, thus, a performance easy to live with and easy to enjoy upon repeat listening.

Decca recorded the music in the Sofiensaal, Vienna, in 1965, and HDTT transferred it to HQCD from a London four-track tape. The sound is as good as any Beethoven Ninth on record and better than most. Let’s just say there is nothing seriously better. Clarity is outstanding, without being in any way bright or edgy, and while it may not be as ultimately transparent as some other recordings, it is more lifelike than most. The stereo spread is wide; dynamics are strong; transient response is quick; orchestral depth is moderately good; and bass and treble appear reasonably well extended. A pleasant ambient bloom and almost no background noise give the whole affair a natural, realistic feel. Very nice.

For further information about HDTT discs and downloads, you can check out their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.

“Top of the world!”  --James Cagney, White Heat

JJP

3 comments:

  1. A most enjoyable performance. A very traditional approach by Mr Isserstedt.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi John: for Solti's Beethoven's 9th, do you recommend the 1972 version or the 1987 version? Both Decca. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I prefer Solti's '72 analogue version to his later digital one.

    ReplyDelete

John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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