BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 “Choral” – Florence Kopleff, soprano/ Phyllis Curtin, contralto/ Donald Gramm, tenor/John McCollum, bass/ CSO Chorus and Chicago symphony Orchestra /Fritz Reiner – HDTT HDCD210 [Avail. in various formats from www.highdeftapetransfers.com], 67:57 ****:

Transferred from 1961 RCA 4-track tape originally produced by Richard Mohr, this Beethoven Ninth celebrates its 50th anniversary in spectacular fashion, led as it is by the fervently intense conductor Fritz Reiner (1888-1963) whose intelligent athleticism easily rivaled Toscanini for propulsion and nervous excitement. Several chats with soprano Florence Kopleff (b. 1924) at Georgia State University’s music department exploded the typical myth of Reiner’s gruff inaccessibility, Kopleff recalling with ardent glee invitations to Reiner’s home and the hospitality of his wife, Charlotte. Kopleff spoke of the less familiar aspect of Reiner’s repertory, such as his thorough fondness for the Berlioz Romeo and Juliet Symphony.

The Beethoven Ninth confirms the repute Reiner achieved for tonal clarity and rhythmic flexibility in his responsive CSO, the leadership of which he assumed in 1953. Both harmonically captivating and almost martially audacious, the first movement moves with  inexorable vigor, the woodwind and brass definition a model of its kind. A demonic fury often seizes the polyphonic procession, almost grinding in its passion and writhing torment. The Molto vivace that follows extends the mania for spasmodic inflection, singularly fixated on rhythmic steadiness even as the metrics disjoint willfully, clash, and wince at the entries of the tympani. The oboe–Ray Still–part still weaves a subtle magic in the trio section after 50 years, while the lower strings hint at worlds from whose bourn no traveler has ever completely returned.  The da capo interplay of bassoon, clarinet, and tympani remains a remarkable testament to orchestral discipline in its own right.

That Reiner could impose a taut line on Beethoven’s double-theme and variations Adagio suggests what he might have achieved in the music of Bruckner, which Reiner seems not to have explored on record. After the aggressively feral first two movements, the degree of tranquil intimacy Reiner elicits rather startles our wound-up senses, which soon pass on to another world entirely. One might impose a rubric on this devout reading and call it Reiner’s “will to belief.” The whirlwind finale proves quite expansive, given the powerful thrust of the martial opening and subsequent orchestral recitative. Rarely have the basses sounded so fraught with despair in their search for a thematic vehicle to carry Beethoven’s heroic message. A lyrical mortality runs through the melody itself, even though Reiner’s literal aural swansong would come in the form of the Haydn C Minor Symphony No. 95.  A gentle tolerance pervades McCollum’s invocation to cease the former, instrumental tones in favor of a higher expression of mankind’s innate brotherhood. Kopleff immediately sails above the vocal quartet, the tympani resonating underneath the swirl of intricate figures that soar in desperate harmony to convince us of humane possibilities. The “scherzo” in janissary terms features a spirited Donald Gramm, playful and buoyant, a step away from Wagner’s Mime. The ensuing fugato, muscular and eminently clear in detail, churns with an implacable sense of pulsation, hurtling us to a feverish climax, a Herculean statement of Joy’s dominion. The “seid umschlungen” plays like the Tuba mirum or Offertory from the Requiem Mass, the antiphonal effects in Chicago Symphony Hall reverberant in their tragic piety. The four corners of the world seem to coalesce in the exalted hymn that wishes to embrace all Mankind with a kiss of benediction. The rising figures at “Tochter aus Elysium” dance and shimmer with an evanescent fury, the magic” of love’s alchemy surging and whispering in a concerted invitation to Earthly bliss. The last quartet ensemble assumes a gesture like Hopkins’ “The Windhover,” a pantheistic meditation that erupts into one last janissary frenzy of faith and humanity in a world otherwise gone mad.  You have to supply the missing audience hysteria and applause yourself.

— Gary Lemco