“Choral” – Heather Harper, soprano/ Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano/ Ronald
Dowd, tenor/Franz Crass, bass/ New Philharmonia Chorus and
BBC Legends BBCL-4155 (2 CDs) 27:15; 69:23 (Distrib. Koch)****:
The concert of 12 November 1968 features the fiery Hungarian conductor
George Szell (1897-1970), noted for having – through his demanding
rehearsal methods – raised the orchestral standard of his
especial Cleveland Orchestra to an international ensemble of the first
rank. Szell had come to Royal Festival Hall for a three-concert
engagement, November 7-12, with the only variation among the programs
being the Schumann Rhenish in lieu of the Beethoven F Major Symphony.
The Beethoven 8th receives a thoroughly muscular, incisive reading,
with Szell’s doubling the horns to four for the tuttis, the first in
Beethoven to require a ffff dynamic at the recapitulation of the first
movement. The clarity of the polyphonic episodes is in the wonted Szell
tradition, with the effect to reveal how similar are the methods of the
F Major and the Eroica Symphony, albeit the formidable techniques so
dominant in the Third merely provide passing show in the work of 1812.
The rhythmic drive, too, is in the Szell (albeit Toscanini-inspired)
tradition of forward motion that does not sacrifice agogic details. The
Ninth uses Szell’s own parts, too, following Wagner’s advice of
doubling horns in the Scherzo second theme; woodwinds and trumpets are
doubled as well; and the tympani part for the Scherzo seems eminently
active. The Choral movement has dignity and girth, a reverent
resonance that might remind connoisseurs of the Horenstein approach to
this movement, whose structure is a microcosm of the entire work.
Harper, Baker, and Crass are in fine form, and Dowd, a newcomer to this
auditor, makes virile magic of his scherzo section in the janissary
mode. Flutes and battery, along with the powerful strings and New
Philharmonia Chorus, bring the power and humanity of the colossal score
to a rousing close, a demonstration of musical force the audience is
not shy in reciprocating to its fullest.