Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (HDCD)

Featuring Florence Kopleff, Donald Gramm, Phyllis Curtin, John McCollum, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus.  Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. HDTT HDCD210.

Although Fritz Reiner's stereo years with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1954-1962, produced any number of outstanding recordings in RCA's "Living Stereo" line, his Beethoven could be problematical. His reading of the Sixth Symphony, for instance, is one of the best ever made, a classic of the catalogue, yet his Fifth Symphony, with its galloping tempos, can drive some listeners to distraction. I'm a fan of Reiner, but the only time I heard even a portion of his Beethoven Ninth was at a friend's house some thirty years ago. And I'm afraid the fancy art-book packaging impressed me more than the music did. Having never heard the RCA compact disc, I was glad to listen to the recording in its entirety as remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).

Reiner's rendering of the opening Allegro is remarkably dynamic, as though he were still in Symphony No. 5 mode, with plenty of forward drive, tension, and release. Still it seems both relaxed and rushed at the same time, never quite achieving the exhilarating start it should.

The second-movement Scherzo, Molto vivace, seems more successful to me, although here, too, Reiner appears intent on barreling forward at an unnecessarily fast pace and then backing off at unexpected moments. The result is sometimes intoxicating, sometimes breathless.

Then, Reiner plays the Adagio as sweetly as anybody, the mood reminding one of his genial rendition of the "Pastoral" Symphony. However, during quieter passages an abrasive, wiry edge tends to accompany the high strings, and it diminishes one's full appreciation of the tone the conductor is trying to convey.

Of course, all that comes before the mighty finale is mere prelude, anyway, a finale Beethoven based on the poem "Ode to Joy" by Friedrich Schiller. Indeed, it is this concluding choral movement that crowned Beethoven's whole symphonic output and paved the way for future composers to use voices in their symphonies. As with almost everything Beethoven did, the finale was revolutionary in its day. Moreover, it was the crowning jewel in Reiner's case for the work, too, and it is as triumphant as any you'll hear. In this section Reiner never seems hurried at all, yet he conveys a great sense of jubilation and exultation, the vocals ringing out clearly and joyously. So, while Reiner's Beethoven Ninth overall may not be a performance for the ages, it contains a finale worthy of one's attention.

Transferred to disc by HDTT from an RCA four-track tape originally recorded at Chicago Symphony Hall in 1961, the sound is quite wide and very well defined. Nevertheless, I noticed several odd thumps along the way, as well as a little more background noise than usual from this company. The sound is also a bit hard at times and a tad leaner than I would have anticipated. We should expect this of a tape made almost fifty years ago, yet I still found these imperfections somewhat troublesome. The acoustic provides good inner detail at the expense of some ambient bloom; the percussion comes through best; the strings not as well, with a generally rough aspect to them. Solo voices, though, sound resplendent, possibly the best on record.

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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.

Mission Statement

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