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.
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: