Magazine article Gramophone

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 1-9

Magazine article Gramophone

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 1-9

Article excerpt

Beethoven

Symphonies Nos 1-9

Soloists; Vienna Singverein; Berlin PO / Karajan

DG [M] [6] (incl 1 Blu-ray audio disc) 479 3442

This is easily the finest Ninth we have yet had in stereo ... The first movement is fiercely Toscaninian, but my goodness how a modern recording adds to the impact. The woodwind are a shade too forward, but that is a small matter. The Scherzo is equally intense. Unlike Toscanini, Karajan takes the text literally without the conjectural whoops for the horns added by Wagner. I normally like the amendment, but with Karajan there is no feeling of thinness. Again it is all a little more literal than with Toscanini with less spring to the rhythm.

In the slow movement Karajan scarcely achieves the hushed intensity or the pulsing electricity of Toscanini. Instead purity and simplicity are the keynotes. If after the first two movements the tension inevitably relaxes, there is compensation in the almost religious calm. The recording ... was made in a church, and here one feels it clearly. The triplet variation in particular is radiant in a way that is rarely achieved in studio recordings.

The finale is blessed with very good soloists. Walter Berry might seem a lightweight choice, but the balancing help[s]. How much better to have a clearly defined voice than a heavier one which is badly focused. Two vocal moments have always barred me from enjoyment of the Klemperer --Hotter's painfully off-pitch recitative and Nordmo-Lovberg's frightful top B in the final quartet. There are no such enormities here. Gundula Janowitz is a beautiful young newcomer ... It is a rich and creamy voice, and only on that fearsome top B does a slight flutter develop. Edward Greenfield (2/63)

Peter Quantrill It was 52 years ago, but this Ninth is much further away from us than it is from Oskar Fried's pioneering 1928 Berlin (State Opera Orchestra) recording. But by 1962 Karajan had been Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic for seven years--he'd overhauled the orchestra's personnel, laid plans for a new concert hall, and already begun to fulfil the mutually lucrative partnership with DG that would, for listeners worldwide, represent a seal of quality. There are people who think that one recording of any piece is sufficient, and I think that Karajan was the musician who did more than anyone through his recording career to perpetuate that notion.

Phil Clark Which makes you question why he kept recording the Ninth--two further versions to follow before he died. But essentially I think you're right: when Karajan cut his 1955 version with the Philharmonia he was making a record simple and pure (and a very fine one, too), but here (in his mid-fifties) he's mulling over his legacy and thinking through how to create a permanent monument. Check out the cover art on the original LP (when it was made available with just the Eighth): Karajan suspended against a jet-black background. Striking the pose. The granite texture of his skin. His hair apparently carved into gravity-defying shape with a mallet. Karajan's image unmistakably resembles one of those commemorative sculptures you see liberally dotted around Berlin or Vienna. Designed clearly to focus our attention on the great man, it's also an oddly dehumanised, robotic pose.

PQ There is an idea--the Romantic ideal? --that a unitary, perfect interpretation can be conceived and striven for. Maybe all performing musicians need to believe that at the time of performance, while also striving for more insight each time they perform the music anew, but Karajan's view of the Ninth changed hardly at all over the years, as we can hear. Once arrived at, it is refined but not reinvented. His approach is the apotheosis of the Romantic view, post-Wagner (hardly modern except insofar as it reacted to the generation immediately prior to his), that a unitary meaning can and must be found in apparently disparate or conflicting materials. …

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