Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 Choral (1823-24)
Amanda Roocroft (soprano); Fiona Janes (mezzo); John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Neal Davies (bass)
The New Company; Orchestra of The Age of Enlightenment/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. live, 26 August 1994, Usher Hall, Edinburgh. DDD
German text and English translation included
Every year the reviewers at MusicWeb International are asked to select their Recordings of the Year. In 2008 I could have kicked myself because I failed to nominate the superb Hyperion Beethoven symphony cycle recorded live by Sir Charles Mackerras at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival (review). How I could have overlooked one of the finest Beethoven cycles to appear for years is beyond me; the only excuse I can make was that I’d forgotten the set because it had not come to me for review.
That Mackerras cycle was given using orchestras playing on modern instruments. For the first eight symphonies Sir Charles used the Scottish Chamber Orchestra but for the Ninth the larger forces of the Philharmonia were engaged. I presume this was done because the Edinburgh Festival Chorus was singing and it was felt that the orchestra should be in scale. However, for those wondering what a Mackerras reading of the Ninth using smaller forces might sound like we now have the answer thanks to Signum. They have issued this 1994 Edinburgh performance which employed the period forces of the Orchestra of The Age of Enlightenment. The choral contribution is in scale because the chamber choir, The New Company, was on hand for the finale.
The sound of this performance is bracing from the outset. The lean, spare textures ensure that the playing of the OAE comes across with great clarity. In particular, the woodwind lines are easily audible. The period timpani, played with hard sticks make their presence felt at climaxes. Mackerras directs a vigorous reading of I, impelling the music forward with consistent and impressive energy. The overall impression that I had was that this is a very dynamic performance.
The scherzo is lithe and crisp. The performance has great rhythmic drive, as is essential. In the trio the woodwind playing is deft but, in case anyone should think that this is a “hair shirt” stuff – it most certainly is not. The warmth of the strings in the trio should provide reassurance. Once or twice the principal horn displays little moments of fallibility but these are very much the exception; the general standard of playing in this performance is high indeed. One thing did surprise me: the well-articulated timpani sound almost modern but I’m sure that’s just because my ears had adjusted to the sound produced.
In III Mackerras and his players bring out the profundity of the music extremely well. However, the profundity is not achieved through being ponderous. On the contrary, the music is kept on the move at all times. Indeed, from 7:47 onwards the string decorations around the slower-moving theme (wind and horns) sounds almost jaunty at Mackerras’s fluent tempo. The string and woodwind playing is very fine in this movement – and the horn playing is completely back on form.
At the start of IV I like the way that the cello and bass recitative passages are dispatched briskly; their rhetoric is almost conversational – the passage is delivered in a similar fashion on Sir Charles’s later Hyperion disc. When the Big Tune arrives it unfolds easily at first and when the full orchestra gives out the melody (4:33) the theme sounds properly jubilant. Neal Davies’s opening solo (5:58) is impressive and clearly articulated. When the choir enters they make a very favourable impression and everything is pleasingly in proportion: the choir doesn’t swamp the orchestra when singing full out. The New Company is a professional ensemble and it shows. Sample the way they sing the passage beginning ‘Seid umschlungen Millionen’, especially once all four parts are involved, and note the attention to detail – sforzandi, for example. I suspect there are some male singers in the alto section, which has an excellent cutting edge. When the full choir proclaims ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken’ (12:54) the singing is excellent and really clear. The passage is as exultant as it should be and I relish the fact that this full sound is not massive. One has the impression of joyful eagerness.
The soloists make a good and well-balanced quartet. Mackerras adopts a brisk pace for the tenor’s martial solo (from 9:12). I like that. It’s a similar approach to that of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, though Gardiner takes it faster on his recording. I prefer the Mackerras speed, which is similar to the one he adopts in his Hyperion recording. I also like John Mark Ainsley’s agile and accurate delivery of this difficult solo. I’ve already mentioned the excellent Neal Davies. The ladies don’t have such prominent solos as their male colleagues but they sing very well indeed in the quartets. The final passage for the soloists – their intertwining quartet at the poco adagio, ‘Alle Menchen werden Brüder’- is expertly blended and eloquently delivered.
The orchestra’s busy contrapuntal section that follows the tenor solo (10:40 - 11: 54) is vigorous but Mackerras and his players make every strand clear – no mean accomplishment. Indeed, the orchestral playing throughout the finale is alert, responsive and expertly articulated. The last few minutes of the movement – the piccolo a telling presence - are exultant, the music sweeping all before it; small wonder the Edinburgh audience responds enthusiastically.
The sound for this performance originates, I think, from BBC radio engineering. It’s good and lots of detail registers though occasionally one is conscious of the big Usher Hall acoustic. This is an excellent account of the Ninth and forms an invaluable supplement to Sir Charles’s superb cycle of the symphonies on Hyperion.
John Quinn
An excellent account of the Ninth, which forms an invaluable supplement to Sir Charles’s superb cycle of the symphonies on Hyperion.