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.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa