BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 “Choral” – Frances Yeend, soprano/Eunice Alberts, contralto/David Lloyd, tenor/James Pease, bass/Berkshire Music Festival Chorus/Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
Pristine Audio PASC 300, 68:40 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ***:
Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) who usually instantiates Russian-born intensity in music-making delivers (6-13 August 1947) a conscientious but linear and relatively lackluster Beethoven Ninth Allegro ma non troppo from Tanglewood in his commercial version for RCA. The transfers, made from red vinyl 78 rpms, enjoy a marvelously restored surface patina—clean, clear, rich in the bass. While the sound of the Boston string section maintains its luster–so much so Virgil Thomson labeled it “overtrained”–the dramatic elements–in this first movement–proceed rather perfunctorily, in the manner of an aesthetic exercise. This does not deny the richness of the BSO’s response, but rather that the depth of emotion–especially for Koussevitzky–lacks punch and viscera.
The Molto vivace fares better, the line crisp, the attacks angular and nervously urgent. New day, new rules? Koussevitzky seems to work very hard to keep the entries level, in time, maintaining the inner pulsation of the outer Scherzo. I would have preferred closer miking of the BSO tympani and woodwinds, especially the bassoon. The flute–I assume Georges Laurent–projects a lovely tone and silken gloss in his part. The frequency range altered a bit at 4:47 in my copy, as though the lid were taken off the piano. Some kid-glove, loving phrasing in the trio, with solid punctuations in the brass and low winds. The Adagio cantabile allows Koussevitzky’s forces to shine precisely in the strings, the source of his power. Long-breathed phrases, a dynamically graduated approach to the large arch of the melodies and their subsequent variants, add an especial poise and nobility to the line. If Koussevitzky’s version lacks Furtwaengler’s mysticism, it has a naïve honesty of expression that wins our hearts.
Two members of Koussevitzky’s vocal quartet, Yeend and Lloyd, served Bruno Walter for his commercial Ninth on CBS. James Pease, who sang as well in Koussevitzky’s Missa Solemnis, brings a decided weight to his opening incantation to replace abstract tones with human meanings. The vocal support of the Berkshire Chorus, directed by Robert Shaw, resonates powerfully. As per expectation, the string line of the main melody purrs and floats over the woodwind support. The tenor aria, a janissary march, balances marcato heaviness against a blithe spirit, leading to a potent fugato from Koussevitzky. The slow movement, “Seid umschlungen” forward, rings with a secular piety quite distinct and spiritually elevating. Strong ensemble carries the day for the final quartet and ensuing janissary figures with high woodwinds, quite energized. The huge pause in the momentum and its surge to glory redeems what had begun as a pedestrian reading and imparts upon it a decided glamour.
— Gary Lemco
Mid-century performances, Eduard Erdmann, piano