BEETHOVEN – Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, “Choral” Ruth Sampson, Soprano / Edith Dowd, Alto / Cameron Schutza, Tenor / Brian Kontes, Bass / New Amsterdam Singers / West Point Glee Club / Young New Yorkers’ Chorus / Park Avenue Chamber Symphony / David Bernard ‒ Recursive Classics RC2058306; 65:38 (7/8/2017) Performance: ***1/2; Sound: ***

A virile and proposive performance. But not all the playing is of sterling character, and the recorded sound is something of a letdown.

Talk about a long gestastion period! While the “Choral” Symphony may have been completed and premiered in 1823, Beethoven himself more or less conducting, the idea of setting Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” which provides the text of the finale, came to Beethoven as far back as 1793, almost a decade before the First Symphony saw the light of day. Then in 1812, year of the Eighth Symphony, Beethoven returned to Schiller’s poem, thinking of incorporating parts of it in a choral-orchestral overture, which turned out instead to be the entirely orchestral overture Namensfeier (“Nameday”).

But the idea wouldn’t rest. Around the same time, Beethoven promised his publisher Breitkopf & Härtel that he was working on two new symphonies, one of which was already finished. This was not the last time Beethoven tried to hoodwink folks about the status of his work. In 1827, he asked the Philharmonic Society of London (mentioned below) to commission a new symphony from him, especially since his Tenth Symphony was completely sketched and sitting on his desk. Instead, at his death, this symphony amounted to no more than 250 measures of sketches. The true initial impetus for the Ninth and for the incomplete Tenth—came, however, in 1817, when the Philharmonic Society first invited Beethoven to write and conduct two new symphonies in the English capital.

By 1818, Beethoven expressed some fairly inchoate ideas that indicated he was thinking of incorporating a vocal element in one of his two planned symphonies. Musicologist Barry Cooper quotes Beethoven’s thoughts: “Pious song in a symphony in the old modes. . .where the voices enter in the last movement or already in the Adagio. . . . In the Adagio text Greek myth, ecclesiastical canticle—in the Allegro festval of Bacchus.” Even though the plan at this point was pretty loose, Cooper goes on to say that the finished product did include Classical references (to Elysium), a canticle to God the Creator, and a Bacchanal of a coda in the last movement! (Here, I reference Barry Cooper’s notes to the set of complete Beethoven symphonies from Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra, BIS-SACD-1825/26.)

At any rate, the final impetus for the Ninth Symphony’s completion came in 1823 with the Philharmonic Society’s new offer, backed by cash, for a single symphony. However, the premiere took place on May 7 not in London but Vienna, the now-deaf Beethoven waving his arms and belatedly turning pages of the score while one Louis Antoine Duport, manager of the hosting Kärntnertortheater, actually lead the combined musical forces. England didn’t hear the work until the following year.

The first performance was mostly reported as a great success, though there were voices of dissent even then, including diarist Joseph Rosenblum, who seemed underwhelmed. And according to Rosenblum, the second performance on May 23 was ill attended and unloved: “Many boxes empty, no one from the Court. For all the large forces little effect. B’s disciples clamoured, most of the audience stayed quiet, many did not wait for the end.” Apparently the take for the evening was so poor that Beethoven “collapsed” when he saw the receipts. (This contrarian account comes from the great Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon in his book Beethoven.)

Despite the fact that the Ninth is now a universal favorite, especially because of its brotherhood-of-man messaging, critical reactions have always been mixed. In the nineteenth century, while Wagner thought the work vindicated his concept of the music drama, the musicologist Eduard Hanslick called the work a “monstrosity.” Contemporary British composer Thomas Adès echoes this sentiment: he wishes that Beethoven had just followed his three great purely orchestral movements with an orchestral finale. But then I’m not a composer or musicologist, just a music lover. My reaction is not mixed, even though I think Beethoven’s attempts to bridge the gap between the third and fourth movements—the extended orchestral recitative to introduce the first (bass) solo and reiteration of the main themes of the first three movements—less than fully successful. The work still moves me deeply every time I hear it, and I make sure I hear it quite often.

And so we come to the present performance of the work with David Bernard leading his pretty remarkable semi-pro orchestra, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. Bernard certainly doesn’t throw them any musical softballs, demanding and getting full-throated Beethovenian fortes and taking the faster bits at a healthy clip, although the overall timing (65:38) marks this performance as middle-of-the-pack as far as tempi are concerned. The aforementioned Vänskä clocks in at just about twenty seconds shorter than Bernard, while Paavo Järvi’s performance (RCA) is about 45 seconds shorter. The still well-regarded Solti-Chicago performance from the 80s (Decca) might now seem belabored at almost 75 minutes’ duration. Meanwhile, revisionist conductors who try to follow Beethoven’s metronome markings more closely are much faster (John Elliot Gardiner at just under an hour, David Zinman well under an hour).

David Bernard’s first movement really has the kind of elemental terror Beethoven was trying to capture here, while the scherzo crackles with nervous energy. The playing of the strings, especially, isn’t as beautifully cushioned as in many other recordings, and this is telling in the great Adagio movement. Brass contributions aren’t ideally refined here either. Indeed, some of the brass playing, while certainly hard hitting, is hard edged as well, though that may be a function of the hall and the recording, as I’ll note below. Overall, the last movement is well sustained and makes as convincing a case as can be made for this vast and varied canvas. And Bernard has assembled a very nicely balanced group of soloists who acquit themselves admirably in solos and ensembles.

Perhaps the chorus is the biggest surprise to me. Against his rather small orchestra, Bernard masses substantial choral forces, probably trying to simulate the balances in the first performances of the work. Because of canny placement, the chorus makes a big statement but never comes close to overwhelming the instruments.

So far, so good. However, I’m not enthralled with the recording, set down at the DiMenna Center in New York City, home of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. From what I’ve read, the hall is a dry one, which enhances clarity but also greatly exposes performers, especially vocalists. This effect seems clear when the brass hold forth in the current performance. They seem to be playing almost in a separate, and very exposed space, which probably accounts for the impression of hardness they leave when they play loudly. Perhaps because of the dryness of the acoustic, the sense of depth is variable, the chorus convincingly recessed, as I’ve said, the soloists also in a convincing space vis-à-vis the orchestra, but then some of the orchestra solos and ensembles exhibit that same exposed quality, as if strangely compartmentalized.

However, my biggest gripe is with the recording of the Turkish percussion. Critics have taken Beethoven to task for employing an already out-of-fashion musical trope. But he chose to include it, and it does greatly liven the proceedings. (In fact, I have no objection whatsoever to Beethoven’s choice.) Either through a fault of the recording engineers or conductor, the percussion fails to make much of an impression at all—and this despite the orchestra’s being less than full size.

So to sum up, a fine performance somewhat undone by a problematic sound recording. But Bernard’s interpretation at least and the contribution of his outstanding little orchestra and excellent vocal forces make this presentation competitive.

—Lee Passarella