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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN

Symphony no.9 in D minor, op.125 - "Choral".
Elisabeth Söderström (sop); Regina Resnik (con);
Jon Vickers (ten); David Ward (bass), London Bach Choir,
London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux.
Rec. June 1962, Walthamstow Town Hall, London.
Millennium Classics MCD80090 [68'06"]

There was nothing very systematic about Monteux's Beethoven recordings. Between 1957 and 1961 he recorded the first eight symphonies, 1, 3, 6 and 8 with the Vienna Philharmonic (there was also a Concertgebouw "Eroica" on Philips), 2, 4, 5 and 7 with the LSO, all for RCA (they later passed to Decca). Though the VPO recordings were well received, of the LSO batch only no.4 came out during the conductor's lifetime and no.5 had to wait for issue till 1982. In 1990 Decca grouped together this "headless corpse" in 2 double-CD sets and most critics who reviewed it seemed unaware that a Ninth had in fact been made for Westminster. (Could not Decca obtain the rights and issue the cycle properly?)

The recording of the orchestra is good, very clear and natural with good definition (Monteux's divided violins much in evidence), though shallow by today's standards. The soloists are distant, without much bloom to their voices, but it is the woolly recording of the choir which places this firmly in the "historical" bracket.

The opening bars tell us a lot about any performance and here we have no threatening tremolando emerging from the mists but carefully articulated sextuplets with a slight accent on the first of each group which sets up a rhythmic pulsation that is never lost sight of. In this first movement contrapuntal clarity, clear articulation and lyrical phrasing all occur within a single, inexorable pulse. It is not a dramatic performance, but it is a supremely musical one. Monteux cares for the rhythms just as much here as in The Rite of Spring. It really matters to him, for instance, that in bb.240 to 250 the second violins are thrashing out sextuplets where the lower strings have semiquavers.

The second movement is mostly very well sprung, but at times seems to slacken a trifle. A strange spurt of tempo for about three bars around b.50 in the repeat (not the first time or when it is repeated after the Trio) leads me to suspect that the engineers have assembled the performance from two takes that went at slightly different tempi. The difference is minimal might have passed unnoticed in an interpretation less grounded on a steady pulse.

The Adagio molto e cantabile seems a little too slow at the start (perhaps the orchestra are not yet collectively feeling the tempo but following Monteux beat by beat), but when the first variation begins it feels exactly right and the rhythmic pulsation set up really seems to have been implicit in the theme from the beginning. Under Monteux the movement emerges as a continuous flowering.

Something similar happens in the finale. If at first the "joy" theme seems a rather slow and bald statement (definitely four-in-a-bar), when the march breaks out (with no quickening in tempo) it has a marvellous spring in its step, and in the quaver variation (b.60) the notes can really be sung instead of snatched at. Despite the slow tempi, this performance genuinely takes off at times and is never heavy. And at the end something wonderful happens. After a quartet with clearer textures than most, the change back to D major is savoured lovingly, followed by one of the most thrilling explosions of joy I have ever heard.

Despite a few minor reservations (and less minor ones about the recording) this is a performance I shall come back to often. It is definitely among the Ninths that count.

Christopher Howell



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