Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Also, Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw. Jane Marsh, Josephine Veasey, Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes; Chorus Pro Musica, New England Conservatory Chorus; Erich Leinsdorf, Boston Symphony Orchestra. RCA "High Performance" 09026-63682-2.

How can this be? The two recordings represented on the disc were made in 1969, yet not only had I never heard the particular recordings before, I had never even heard of their existence before. I mean, it's not as though they are obscure pieces of music done by obscure musicians. The Beethoven Ninth is one of the staples of the core repertoire, Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony have been leading names in the classical domain, and Domingo and Milnes are top singers in their field. In fact, RCA thought so much of the recordings they included them in this "High Performance" remastering series. Had I been asleep at the wheel all these years?

Anyway, the program starts with Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw, a brief orchestral work with narration by Sherrill Milnes. It is a grim but inspirational comment on the subject of World War II death camps. A survivor tells the story of a group of Jews who just as the Nazis were about to deport them to camps burst into singing the prayer "Shema Yisroel." Schoenberg wrote it in 1947, having apparently heard the tale from an actual Warsaw survivor. It is severe, as it must be, but with great flourish and color, ending in a kind of spiritual exaltation. It makes an oddly appropriate introduction to the Ninth Symphony that follows.

Erich Leinsdorf
At a little under sixty-six minutes, Leinsdorf's Beethoven Ninth must be among the fastest and most exciting on record. Of the almost one dozen or so versions I had on hand (Schmidt-Isserstedt, Bohm, Solti, Jochum, Norrington, Karajan, Szell, Mackerras, Zinman, Wand, Karajan, etc.), only Norrington's period-instrument account was marginally quicker.

Leinsdorf's rendering is a star-studded performance where everything appears to fit together perfectly, the conductor leading his orchestra and the listener in disciplined, straightforward, military cadences that at times can actually stir the blood. Yet, at the same time, I couldn't help feeling that in the process of stimulating our passions, Maestro Leinsdorf had also drained some of the humanity out of the piece, that he had lessened the poetic lyricism to a larger degree than I would have liked.

I can still appreciate Leinsdorf's recording, to be sure, and it does make a pleasant contrast to the more solemn and ceremonial interpretations that have come down to us through the years. Still, it wouldn't be my first choice in this material by any means.

The sound is a bit top heavy and bottom shy, providing good detail at the expense of a natural concert-hall realism. Although there is not a lot of depth to the orchestra or chorus, there is plenty of left-to-right stereo spread and good dynamic shading. The merest touch of background noise reminds one of the recording date.

Altogether, this seems a reasonable choice for remastering in RCA's "High Performance" audiophile line, if not, as I've said an absolute first recommendation for a Beethoven Ninth.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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.

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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