BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 “Choral”/ Christina Landshamer, soprano/ Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano/ Werner Güra, tenor/ Shenyang, bass-baritone/ Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh/ Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/ Manfred Honeck – Reference Recordings FR-741SACD (12/23/20) (62:48) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
It seems as if each conductor’s new consideration of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony (1824) demands a reconsideration of its musical means. In his extensive booklet notes, conductor Manfred Honeck provides informative details of the minute attentions he accorded his recording (June 6-9, 2019) for Reference. The real issue remains whether conscientious musicianship retains the spontaneity and energy in the finished product. This performance does indeed balance its multifarious adjustments to Beethoven’s dynamic requirements with a spacious warmth in the realization that does not suffer lags and sags in the musical line.
The opening movement, Allegro ma non troppo, poco maestoso projects a colossal conflict, a “pandemonium in heaven,” mainly on the issue of harmonic evolution. The issues of textural density, syncopations, and the application of sforzandos to propel the “dialogue” between strings winds have injected a palpable urgency into Honeck’s reading. Honeck makes a particular point of Beethoven’s funeral march that occurs late in the D Major recapitulation, near the coda. The tremolos in the second violins and the use of ponticello produce an eerie tension that leaves us ambivalent as to the emotional tenor of a work so committed to humanism.
We should acknowledge immediately the contribution of acting principal timpanist Christopher Allen in the Scherzo, given the constant immediacy of his presence. This often wild folk dance requires Allen to attend to the third, and later, the fourth measure in the measures after 195 to realize the jest of the shifting ff indication. Honeck retains the quick tempo, urging the Presto trio to move briskly without sacrificing its lyrical quality. The Pittsburgh trumpets and bassoons sound especially alert, as do the French horn, oboe and trombones. The soft dynamic Honeck applies in the trio’s second part imparts a feeling of withdrawal, kind of farewell. Honeck takes all of this movement’s repeats, giving this Molto vivace movement a decided, kinetic breadth.
Honeck adapts a moving, walking tempo for the third movement, Adagio molto e cantabile, whose secondary theme, too, Andante moderato, conforms to Honeck’s desire not to bog this music in sentimental molasses. The Pittsburgh strings sound as sweetly as ever they had for William Steinberg. Honeck has insisted on meticulous, selected vibrato should apply to Beethoven’s demand for mezza voce in the melodic contour. Honeck calls attention to his Principal Horn William Caballero for his realization of the main voice of the melody for 32 bars, originally assigned by the composer to the fourth horn part. The upward motion of the string line and sudden brass outbursts add a festive character to the progress, especially since the trumpets and third horn have collaborated for the first time in the folkish celebration. Honeck slows the movement, marcato, to instill a deeply reverential tone to the last pages before the depth dissipates, and the coda, the timpani in heartbeats, moves to an almost naive innocence.
The last movement Finale opens furioso and chaotic, and it then proceeds to the intimate recitative (the first of six) in tempo that will soon review the former course of the symphony’s history. The major theme, now so famous, benefits from the strong timpanic and trumpet presence. Recall that structurally, the entrance of the baritone heralds a symphony-within-a-symphony, the sections’ conforming to a potently dramatic first movement, scherzo, adagio, and presto finale. Honeck treats the tenor section, the janissary march, like a French Revolutionary military air, faster than a Prussian version of the march. The ensuing fugato proves especially brisk, leading to the ff statement of the Ode’s declaration of human cooperation. The Seid umschlungen Millionen episode projects deep and devotional ethos, almost a reverent whisper with sudden rushes of panic. The tension between worldly and spiritual ambitions becomes colossal, realized musically as a double fugue. The frenetic Presto Honeck imposes on the last pages can be nothing else but a rush to Judgment. The punishing tessitura for the voices likely embodies the human resistance to the acceptance of Beethoven’s plea for universal tolerance and brotherhood, a message that could not be more emphatic in our troubled times.