Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 "Choral" (CD review)

George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus. Sony SMK 60987.

With this release from the late Nineties, Sony presented a line of low-priced classical reissues in conjunction with National Public Radio's "Performance Today." The series was called "Milestones of the Millennium," and, at least initially, it consisted mainly of collections of short works built around a central theme: "The Renaissance in Music," "Bach: The Brook and the Wellspring," that sort of thing. The first complete work Sony issued in the line was this Beethoven Ninth, and they couldn't have chosen a better representative.

Hungarian-born conductor George Szell (1897-1970) recorded this Ninth for CBS at Severance Hall, Cleveland in 1961, and as such I missed it back then. Well, I was in high school at the time, so what can I say? By the time CBS re-released it on vinyl, I had come to find many CBS LPs sounded too bright, too limited in their response, and too noisy for my taste. I even bypassed the earliest CD reissue of the recording. Anyway, much of that changed with this 1999 remastering. The Szell performance is a marvel of precision and control. It is truly electric, from the opening Allegro through the final notes of the great chorus, under the direction of Chorus Master Robert Shaw, and the recording's sound quality is at least tolerable.

George Szell
First to the performance, where the tension never lets up, not even in the Adagio, which is supposed to be the leisurely interlude that lets us catch our breath. Instead, Szell helps the Adagio zing along at a pace that is not so much fast as it is dynamic. Then, the magnificent choral outburst that concludes and concludes and concludes the piece again is reworked with ever greater intensity, with soloists Adele Addison, Jane Hobson, Richard Lewis, and Donald Bell singing splendidly.

The interpretation may not reach the heights of grandeur attained by the likes of Schmidt-Isserstedt and the Vienna Philharmonic (HDTT), Eugen Jochum and the London Symphony (EMI), Jochum and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips-Belart), Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony (Decca), or Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic (DG), but it matches and sometimes exceeds them in terms of force and concentration, and that's saying a lot.

Sony's remastering used 20-bit SBM technology to obtain the best possible sound from the original source, and while it cannot measure up to some of the discs I've mentioned, it's good for its age. The Szell is a fairly close recording, a feature especially noticeable during the entrance of the soloists in the "Ode to Joy." Still, one gets used to it. Besides, the booklet note informs us that in Beethoven's day the chorus would have stood right in front of the orchestra.

The sound is slightly edgy, with a degree of sheen taken off the top end, indicating some degree of noise reduction. In spite of that, however, there is a low-level tape hiss present in the background. Bass is adequate, though not particularly deep, and the loudest choral passages tend to get a little congested and distorted. Regardless, these are minor faults, and anyone who gets caught up in the performance probably wouldn't notice, audiophiles excepted. At the price, it seems definitely worth a listen.

JJP

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.

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