Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano; Julia Hamari, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Burrows, tenor; Robert Holl, bass. Eugen Jochum, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. EMI Studio CDM 7 69030 2.

After reviewing Eugen Jochum's complete Beethoven Symphony set with the Concertgebouw on Philips, an excellent set he recorded in the late Sixties, I realized I had not heard all of his later Beethoven recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra on EMI from the late Seventies. Why he decided to record them all over again just ten years later, I have no idea, especially since the earlier Philips set was so good, and since the EMI set was actually his third complete set in stereo, the first on DG in the Fifties with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bavarian RSO. Maybe he figured he could get even better sound from EMI, or maybe he thought he had something more to say about the music. He was conductor laureate of the LSO at the time, so maybe that had something to do with it. Who knows.

In any case, I had only heard his Beethoven Third and Sixth Symphonies from the LSO set, so I decided to track down a copy of his Ninth, as that was not only Beethoven's crowning jewel but the best thing in Jochum's Concertgebouw set as well. When I found it, the EMI rendition did not disappoint me.

Jochum's approach to the Ninth remained basically the same, perhaps with a further touch of elegance in addition to the sheer dynamism of a grandly imposing reading. Jochum was an extraordinary musician; rather than slowing down and producing broader, more-spacious interpretations as he got older, a process we see in most other conductors and call "maturing," Jochum seemed to get more animated, more energetic, more vital and compelling in his performances the older he got. He was in his late seventies when he recorded this Ninth, but you would never guess it from the vitality of the music making.

The first movement, which can sometimes drag under other conductors, Jochum takes from its humble beginnings through its building momentum into a fiery conclusion. Appropriately, the second movement scherzo, marked Molto vivace, bounces along gleefully, yet ominously, with Jochum never allowing the rhythmic tension to ease up for a moment, despite Beethoven's odd pauses and even odder hints of the finale.

Jochum's handling of the Adagio feels relaxed, comfortable, a welcome respite from the fury of the previous two movements. The Adagio operates, even sounds, much the same as Beethoven's "Scene at the Brook" in his Sixth Symphony, and Jochum treats it as such, with good-natured grace.

Then, about two-thirds of the way through the Symphony, we hear what is essentially the beginning of the long, tumultuous, tempestuous, resplendent final movement, itself divided into over a dozen separate segments with their own tempo markings, culminating in the glorious "Ode to Joy" with soloists and chorus. Here, Jochum is truly in his element because he appears to relish the music ever more the bigger and more intense it gets.

Yes, there are many other recordings one has to choose from in the Ninth Symphony, and among the top dozen or so, one can hardly go wrong: Solti (Decca), Bohm (1972, DG), Zinman (Arte Nova), Mackerras (EMI), Wand (RCA), Gardiner (DG Archiv), Szell (Sony), Karajan (DG), Kubelik (DG), Stokowski (Decca), Schmidt-Isserstedt (Decca), Monteux (Decca), Abbado (Sony), Haitink (LSO Live), Norrington (EMI), Bernstein (DG), and others. But, for me, topping them all are the two recordings by Eugen Jochum on Philips and here on EMI. They are as electrifying as any you'll find.

EMI's sound, recorded by the two Christophers--producer Christopher Bishop and engineer Christopher Parker--is among the best the Symphony has ever received. Not perfect, because massed voices are notoriously hard to reproduce, but close. Foremost, the EMI sound is fuller and warmer than the Philips sound Jochum enjoyed earlier, with a weightier bass response. Yet the EMI sound is never soft or unfocused. Indeed, it is quite clear most of the time, with only a hint of bass overhang that could be more dependent on your speakers than on the recording. Impact is strong; bass is never overwhelming but realistically rendered; and drum strokes are solid, taut. There is moderately good depth to the sound field, solo voices are smooth and lifelike, and only in massed soprano voices do we hear a touch of bright forwardness. Still, it is never quite as piercing as we hear on so many other recordings. Otherwise, the sound is natural and pleasing.

Heaven only knows what Beethoven might have written to top his Ninth Symphony, premiered in 1824, had he lived long enough in good health and good hearing to have done so. Thank goodness he went out swinging and that people such as Eugen Jochum can today do him justice.

Of course, EMI haven't pressed a copy of Jochum's LSO performance in twenty years, so if you don't already have it and you're interested in it, you'll have to hunt down a used copy. You should have no trouble.

JJP

2 comments:

  1. Just a minor correction: Monteux's ninth was for Westminster. The rest were, indeed, for Decca.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, very true. Thanks much, Gerald. However, I'm afraid I missed the original Westminster edition and came in only when Decca reissued it in a box set.

    ReplyDelete

John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa