One of the finest I have heard
A most joy-inducing
A winning partnership
A Lohengrin to
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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Symphony No. 9 in D minor Choral Op. 125 (1817)
Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano), Lioba Braun (alto), Michael Schade (tenor), Michael Volle (bass)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, Paul VI Audience Hall, Vatican, 27 October 2007 BR KLASSIK 900156 [66:19]
This is the recording of a live performance at the Vatican, in the presence of the then Pope, now Emeritus, Benedict XVI, who is Bavarian. It was clearly a great occasion. Great occasions do not always make great recordings. In this case, however, BR Klassik clearly think highly of this version. They have reissued a performance now ten years old, and that despite Jansons having since recorded a complete Beethoven symphony cycle on the same label (review).
They are right to do so. This performance reflects a clear coherent conception. I do not mean an alien interpretation imposed on the work in the manner of some opera directors, but a clear view of the work, which sees it not as naively triumphant but as achieving hope despite contemplating tragedy, as the sleeve note suggests.
The first movement is the tragedy. What struck me about Jansons here was the way he combined a grasp of the movement as a whole with impressive control over details. The tricky passage for the woodwind at the end of the exposition (sometimes called the third subject) was as clear as I have ever heard it. The flashes of light from the trumpets at the beginning of the development were dark and sinister. The catastrophic return of the quiet opening at the beginning of the recapitulation, but this time in the major and fortissimo, was as shattering as it should be.
The Scherzo is a companion to that of the Eroica symphony, an assertion of energy, sometimes witty, sometimes relentless, but always insistent, with the exception of the relief offered by the Trio. Jansons gets the balance between the wind and the strings in the second subject right, and the ritmo di tre battute passage brings out the woodwind as it should without exaggeration.
The slow movement is a complicated conception of alternating variations on two separate themes. Each time the first theme returns, it is more elaborately decorated by the violins, while the winds retain the plain chords of its original appearance. The second theme is a lovely, rather Schubertian conception, but it cannot be allowed to languish. Jansons keeps the piece moving, with the precision and phrasing of the violins particularly admirable.
A performance of this work, however, stands or falls by the choral finale. The opening Schrekensfanfare is as disruptive as one could wish, and the review of the previous movements is secure, though Jansons, like many conductors, makes an unmarked pause before the cellos and basses first play the Joy theme. After the return of the Schrekensfanfare, Michael Volle, the currently reigning Sachs in Meistersinger, invites us to attune our voices more acceptably and joyfully, and we know we are in safe hands. Both the soloists and the chorus cover themselves with glory. The well-matched soloists succeed in making their fantastically difficult variation sound easy and natural, while the chorus go for their task with a will and the sopranos’ top As ring out. The Turkish march is suitably grotesque, the orchestral double fugue driving and forceful, and the passage about the loving father above the starry heavens, which Tovey says is “the central thought of the Ninth Symphony”, comes out with the exultation and awe the composer intended. After this, nothing can go wrong. The performance earns its triumphant end and its justified applause.
This performance was first issued as a SACD (review) but this reissue is in straight stereo. The sleeve note gives the text of Schiller’s Ode in German and English. The sound is good but not ideal. I detect a hint of congestion at the climaxes. I have praised the recording of the woodwind; the brass are comparatively subdued. It comes into competition with Jansons’s own recording from his complete cycle (review) which I notice has the same tenor and baritone but a different soprano and alto, and is three minutes shorter. This work has, of course, a vast discography. You can find an index of reviews on MWI here. Everyone will have their personal favourites; mine include Karajan’s 1976 Berlin version (DG4776325 or E4158322) and Haitink’s LSO version (LSO Live LSO0592). I am happy for this version by Jansons to join them.