Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, “Choral” – Soloists/ Bruno Kittel Choir/ Berlin State Opera Orch./ Oskar Fried – Pristine

by | Dec 25, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 “Choral” – Lotte Leonard, soprano/ Jenny Sonnenberg, contralto/ Eugen Transky, tenor/ Wilhelm Guttmann, bass/ Bruno Kittel Choir/ Berlin State Opera Orchestra/ Oskar Fried – Pristine Audio PASC 317, 62:05 [avail. in various formats] *****:
More elegant transfer work on the Oskar Fried legacy from producer and audio restoration master Mark Obert-Thorn, revivifying the 1928 Beethoven Ninth Symphony from French Polydor pressings. Oskar Fried (1871-1941) had already inscribed his name among the immortals of the recording industry with his first inscriptions of the Mahler Second and Bruckner Seventh for the acoustic process. Fried’s style conjoins an uncompromising sense of directional tempo coupled with an exquisite sensitivity to inner lines, even at the expense of the continuity of melodic flow. The nervous energy of Fried’s performances has been well documented; perhaps the most famous among them are his Liszt Mazeppa and Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, not to mention his 1937 Symphonie Fantastique from Russia. Fried’s reminiscence of Mahler mirrors a degree of self-confession, of messianic character, Fried’s calling him “superhumanly pure. A redeemer of his profession.”
Careful attention to string articulation permeates the two opening movements of Fried‘s Ninth, whether to accentuate the melodic pulse or to hone the effects of syncopations. The tremolandi of the first movement bring chills up our auditory spines. Fried foregoes the repeat of the Scherzo’s opening material, but his flute, oboe, and horn contributions, abetted by inflamed strings, carry the propulsion forward with delicate but resilient resolve. The Fried sense of rubato I find thoroughly unique and consistently mysterious. His elastic rhythmic sense makes him electrifying as a musical artist, but impossible to predict. That he could compel the BSOO and Berlin Philharmonic to follow him argues for a loyalty and musical affinity that cannot easily be reduced to any single element.
The Adagio movement permits Fried an expanse for whatever “mystical” visions he could project; one might consider his generous feelings for Scriabin in this respect. The shifting rhythms in the evolution of the movement would seem to argue against any “consistent,” exalted vision, but the double-theme-and-variations arch Fried erects has its inimitable and inexorable logic. The sheer plastic intensity of the woodwind and French horn parts must have demanded considerable preparation to achieve their sustaining power and breath control. The occasional slides and portamento connect Fried to his Nineteenth  Century roots, the very heart of the Romantic sensibility, despite his modernist sympathies. Listen to the last two minutes of the Adagio several times and savor the string pizzicati and tympanic beats.
A vigorous, even savage, Presto opens the fourth movement, followed by its musical retrospective past thematic materials. Fried molds the orchestral recitative phrase by phrase, searching for the musical five-note phrase that will culminate in the shedding of instrumental music for “more human tones.” The brass section shines particularly bright in the full throttle of the main theme; then, bass Wilhelm Guttmann enters with an articulate statement of Schiller’s credo.  The vocal quartet emanates clear brilliance, with the two top voices, those of Leonard and Transky, bright and soaring. The Bruno Kittel Choir, which would assume more fame in its work with Wilhelm Furtwangler, responds with resonant, authoritative power. Janissary wit marches its way via tenor Eugen Transky, his diction pungent. Fried’s ensuing counterpoint speaks volumes for his control over the bass parts, virtually the former Scherzo in miniature.
At “Seid umschlungen millionen. . .” we reach the dramatic “slow” movement of the Finale, with Fried’s imposing a dirge-like weight upon the mass of sound, the horns seeming to intone a Tuba mirum below the plaintive voices. The “organ” pedal in the bass bestows an even more antique or motet sensibility upon the proceedings, breaking out as they do into a massive polyphony of lachrymose humanity’s beseeching for “Paradise Regained.” The spirited recollection of “Joy, Daughter of Elysium” fused with that “magic” of men’s transfigured hearts rouses us to a secular, if not religious, faith in the power of song. Given the context of political Germany in 1928, we can well appreciate the act of contrition this performance represents for the conductor and his Orphic vision ofmusic as a moral force. Splendid restoration makes the impact of this Ninth rendition quite sensational.
—Gary Lemco

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