BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 “Choral” – Eileen Farrell, soprano/Nan Merriman, mezzo-soprano/Jan Peerce, tenor/Norman Scott, bass/ NBC Symphony Orchestra/Robert Shaw Chorale/Arturo Toscanini

Pristine Audio PASC 120, 65:06  [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:


Recorded 31 March and 1 April 1952 in Carnegie Hall, this excellent account of the Beethoven 9th under Toscanini was issued in the UK as HMV LP 1039-1040; here, it is remastered by Pristine’s XR process for ambient stereophonic effect, and the result proves astonishingly lively for the period. Toscanini’s pace is, as per expectation, hurried, as in the firs movement; but the alternation of wind choirs and sudden explosions of strings and sforzati brass achieve a simultaneously surging and serenely architectural effect, a passionate storm as described by Percy Shelley and maintained within the bonds of Polyhymnia’s constraints. The Beethoven periods and metric shifts proceed with a devil-may-care recklessness typical of an orchestral virtuoso ensemble thoroughly at ease within its own medium. The flute and bassoon interchanges fly by so quickly we wonder if we are not witnesses to a toccata in the form of a monumental cassation. Only the agonized tympanic and string spasm remind us the Moment of Creation has just been re-enacted.

Toscanini’s Scherzo from the Beethoven Ninth has always held a special place in music, its almost whistling energy catapulting into a briny, sinewy aether above and below interstellar space. The essential Beethoven impulse that permits the smallest dactyl to explode into cosmic fury always lurks below the surface of the metric regularity. The leaping horn figures over the tympanic progressions now stand out clearly, so that a nervous truce exists among the competing parts of a miraculous whole.  We wonder at the sheer youth of the conception, its reverberant, renewed energies. Listen to the violins throw figures off the tip of the bow. The French horn and oboe figure alertly in the Trio, which moves at a breathtaking pace while still maintaining a fluid legato. The crisp, excited last pages redouble the blazing embers of the colossal testimony to the inflamed power of rhythm.

The Adagio plays like Toscanini’s nodding approbation to Bruckner, a hymn whose double-theme and variations allows the Maestro an extended moment of deep repose, a serenade to song, to music. The deep line of second violins and cellos becomes a tender requiem, befitting the purity of a Palestrina. The quieter episodes play as a polyphonic motet, intoning mystical harmonies over pizzicato strings; the momentum then modulates into a veil of sound whose elasticity is matched only by its precision. The throbbing brass announces and repeats a Tuba mirum, answered by a sheer violin choir inherently noble and exalted, and rivaling in its Neapolitan fervor what Furwaengler achieves for the German tradition.


A thrilling tumult of brass sound opens the Presto finale–the low string recitativo answered by bright but snipped notes in the woodwinds. Toscanini well projects the last movement as a structural microcosm of the symphony as a whole, given the reprise of the prior motifs as Beethoven’s musical persona gropes for that five-note theme that grips the idea of Brotherhood. Toscanini need not dawdle over the melodic kernel, so he drives it with militant grace towards its goal, the intrusion of the human voice to articulate the panorama with The Word. Norman Scott’s voice, now in augmented sound, enjoys the benefit of the woodwind choir beneath his invocation to Joy. The vocal quartet, led by the tensile strength of Eileen Farrell’s coloratura soprano, makes the first of its several assaults on Heaven. Then, the orchestral scherzo with tenor Jan Peerce erupts, its janissary colors swirling banners in the wind. The Ode to Joy now assumes a pageantry akin to Le Marseillaise and the Credo of the Missa Solemnis, only to yield to the anguish of the slow movement which bestows a kiss upon all of Humanity. The Shaw Chorale quite glows in its apotheosis of spirit. The impassioned last three minutes, with its quick imitation on God-descended Daughter of Elysium, skitters by until the fateful tympanic roll; then Toscanini allows its universal entreaty a wide berth for Alle Menschen, Peerce and Norman Scott intoning deep resonance under Farrell’s stratospheric tessitura. The janissary whirlwind sweeps us up into a grand vision, brilliantly restored by Andrew Rose and his colleagues at Pristine Audio.

-Gary Lemco