Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Mary Dunleavy, soprano; Elizabeth Bishop, mezzo-soprano; Stephen Gould, tenor; Alastair Miles, bass. Donald Runnicles, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Telarc CD-80603.

Despite using the new Urtext Edition edited by Jonathan Del Mar and published by Barenreiter, this 2003 recording of the Ninth Symphony from conductor Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus steers a pretty safe, conservative course through the interpretive mainstream. The new edition corrects hundreds of errors perpetuated over the years, but you’d hardly notice it under Runnicles’ baton. The coupling of moderate tempos and reserved sonics produces a fairly straightforward account of Beethoven’s climatic work.

Although both Runnicles and David Zinman on his Arte Nova recording use the same text, don’t expect anything like the same results. Zinman employs a slightly reduced orchestral force, adopts much faster speeds (approaching period-instruments practice), and his engineers give it a lighter, brighter audio environment to generate a much more electrifying result. Runnicles, on the other hand, is consistently slower than Zinman, favoring long, flowing lines (although not nearly so slow as many older conductors), and he effects a more-tempered performance than some conductors have. Runnicles should appeal to those listeners seeking a modern digital recording of a big orchestra playing a fairly traditional Ninth in a newly revised edition.

I had my doubts about Runnicles in the beginning, though. The opening of the first movement seemed positively glacial, and when the orchestral sound comes to the fore, it appears to be more a matter of the engineer’s hand than the conductor’s. But once he gets started, Runnicles moves the Allegro along splendidly. He also takes Beethoven’s second-movement Scherzo at a sprightly pace, though nothing like Zinman’s or Norrington’s. It’s in the slow movement, the Adagio, that Runnicles is especially careful. He avoids extremes at all costs, coming in at a discreet fifteen minutes. Compare that to Zinman at about eleven minutes and to Solti at almost twenty minutes, and you see what I mean. Then we have the big finale, which caps the festivities in an appropriately grand manner, all cylinders firing, every voice celebrating the joyous conclusion. Perhaps Runnicles’s reading lacks the ultimate distinction of individualism, but if you go for big, conventional interpretations of the Ninth, there’s something here to like.

Telarc’s audio may be another matter. Played softly it doesn’t sound so good. It seems more than a bit muffled and distant and, in the end, quite unremarkable. Turned up a notch or two, however, it comes more to life. Of course, you have to get used to its being softer and fuller than competing recordings, which may be unfair. I compared it to six other discs of the Ninth I had on hand, and all of the others were better defined and more revealing. In fact, returning to the Telarc appeared as though someone had placed a woolen blanket over the speakers. But comparisons can be deceiving because listening to other recordings after the Telarc made some of them sound a bit too high-pitched and brittle. The closest I came to matching the Telarc sound was with an old Philips recording of Jochum and the Concertgebouw, and even that had a more-elevated top end. While it’s possible the new Telarc is simply better balanced than the others, there’s no doubt the more brilliant audio qualities of most rival discs bring out greater definition in voices, particularly.

No, this Runnicles/Telarc recording would not be my own first choice for interpretation or sound. That honor would still go to the likes of Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (HDTT), Eugen Jochum (both EMI and Philips), Georg Solti (Decca), Karl Boehm (DG), David Zinman (Arte Nova), Herbert von Karajan (DG), Otto Klemperer (EMI), Leonard Bernstein (DG), Sir Charles Mackerras (EMI), Roger Norrington (EMI), John Eliot Gardiner, and the like. They’re tough acts to follow, actually, and the final choice may be a matter not only of one’s own musical taste but one’s own sound system. If your system leans toward brightness, the new Runnicles account might, at least sonically, fit right in with it.


To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here:


  1. Have you had the chance to hear Mackerras's 2006 Hyperion Beethoven symphony cycle, notably his 9th with the Philharmonia? I don't disparage his Liverpudlian cycle. It was good but the Hyperion version is even better. There is more focus, vividness and electricity in the music making this time round.

    Can I also know if you could include Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Beethoven 9th in your last paragraph? This probably demands the most robust touch from conductor and orchestra, not to mention singers. In face I would rate JEG's Beethoven as more robust than Norrington or Hogwood and the other historically sensitive versions that had been released up to that point. The punches are still strong as ever. It helps that they were late to the party and released their cycle late in the learning curve of historically sensitive Beethoven.

  2. Thank you for the heads up. No I have not heard Makerras's Hyperion recording of the Ninth nor John Eliot Gardiner's. But certainly I will take your word for their worth.


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