Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Kristin Sampson, soprano; Edith Dowd, alto; Cameron Schutza, tenor; Brian Kontes, bass; New Amsterdam Singers; West Point Glee Club; Young New Yorkers' Chorus. David Bernard, Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. Recursive Classics RC2058306.

If you're like me (heaven forbid), you may view Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 as the epitome of big-scale classical music. So it might give you some slight pause to consider the symphony played by a chamber orchestra. You might have even more doubts to learn that the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony comprises mainly players who do other things for a living (hedge-fund managers, philanthropists, CEO's, UN officials, and so on). They're not exactly amateurs, but they're not full-time, paid musicians, either. Fortunately, one listen to their playing should dispel any lingering skepticism. Everyone involved with this current production deserves praise.

Not that the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony is a particularly small ensemble. It just isn't the size of a full symphony orchestra, and no matter how well they play, you won't mistake them for the Concertgebouw Orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic. In fact, in the final movement the solo and choral forces (Kristin Sampson, soprano; Edith Dowd, alto; Cameron Schutza, tenor; Brian Kontes, bass; New Amsterdam Singers, the West Point Glee Club, and the Young New Yorkers' Chorus) must outnumber the orchestral players two to one. Nevertheless, the New Yorkers play with enthusiasm, and Maestro David Bernard leads them with gusto.

David Bernard
Did I say "gusto"? I mean, Bernard really has them zipping along. Remember back in the early days of CD, we heard that Philips and Sony, the cofounders of the format, decided upon seventy-five minutes as the limit for content (although some CD's now contain a little over eighty minutes) because seventy-five minutes would accommodate the average length for the Beethoven Ninth Symphony? Well, Bernard's performance leaves plenty of room on the disc to spare. I compared his timings for all four movements to Roger Norrington's historically informed performance, which uses Beethoven's own metronome marks (for better or for worse, depending on your attitude toward the reliability of the markings), and Bernard's sixty-five minute mark is almost as fast. So, yes, this is a zippy reading.

The first thing one notices about the performance is that the fairly small size of the ensemble provides a cozier, more intimate style than many of us may be used to. I still miss the big-scale approach, but the inner detail this one provides compensates in part.

Anyway, the first two (orchestral) movements roll along with a zesty fervor, thanks largely to Maestro Bernard's obvious love of the subject matter and his keen desire to communicate that love to his listeners. The orchestra, amateur or not, respond with equal ardor. They may not produce the lush, rich tones of a bigger group, but they make up for it with their eager (and accurate) musicianship. And the third-movement Adagio is as lyrical and sensitive as you'll find.

Which brings us to the concluding choral movement (the familiar "Ode to Joy"), the moment everybody's been waiting for. Here, the orchestra takes a backseat to the various soloists and choruses participating. In fact, the orchestra practically gets overwhelmed. Moreover, Maestro Bernard lessens the speeds a tad, giving the music a little more chance to breathe, yet the overall impression remains one of intense drive. It's an exceptionally energetic and dramatic interpretation, with the soloists and choruses contributing to favorable effect.

Maybe not everyone will take a shine to Bernard's thrill-a-minute rendering of so well-loved and well-travelled a piece of music, but there's no doubt his is an entertaining ride. You may even find yourself coming back to it more often than you imagined.

Engineers Joseph Patrych and Antonio Oliart recorded the symphony at the DiMenna Center, New York City in November 2016. You'll find a fine sense of orchestral depth, a modest hall bloom, and a relatively wide dynamic range involved, which greatly enhance the realism of the production. Voices elicit a clear, vibrant response, if a bit close. Although stage width is somewhat limited, it has little impact on the recording's clarity. There is also some degree of upper midrange brightness and edge, particularly noticeable in the vocals, but it's not enough of a deal killer to be entirely distracting. While the sound may not be absolutely audiophile, it's quite good and complements the orchestra especially well.

JJP

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


1 comment:

  1. Merveilleuse symphonie No 9 de Beethoven ! Merci pour le partage .

    ReplyDelete

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa