BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 “Choral” – Anne Brown, soprano/ Winifred Heidt, contralto/ William Horne, tenor/ Lawrence Whisonant, bass/ The Westminster Choir/ NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PASC 541, 66:04 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Andrew Rose and Pristine revive a particularly elusive moment in recorded history, with the release of the full account of Leopold Stokowski’s live broadcast of 11 November 1941 that featured the Beethoven Ninth before an audience at the Cosmopolitan Opera House, New York City. Various scheduling malfunctions led to the radio broadcast’s having lost the transmission of the first three movements, so only the finale and the closing radio commentary reached the public at large. In startlingly clear, resonant sound, the full symphony emerges in all of its energetic splendor, certainly worthy of the “Armistice Day” anniversary the occasion celebrates.

Portrait Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven,
by Hornemann

The NBC Symphony, away from the acoustic constrictions of Studio 8-H, projects a monumental gravity to the opening movement, which Stokowski approaches with a resolute sense of purpose. The designation “un poco maesoso” proves apt, given Stokowski’s intent to compress the harmonic and textural elements into a fine frenzy, a paradoxical convergence of spatial infinitude and emotional focus. The NBC strings, winds, and horn respond with a dramatic clarity that quite sets one’s teeth on edge. The string attacks, alert and incisive, become even more inflamed in the Scherzo, which Stokowski hustles through with a menace that belies, or at least subdues, any sense of playfulness. The driven character—what the New York Times called “rousing”—of the performance may well reflect the Toscanini influence, but the broad cadences and held decay at the ends of musical periods remind us of the innate romanticism in Stokowski’s nature. Lovely oboe, French horn, and bassoon work add to the essential luster of the moment.

For many, the breadth and noble sincerity of the Adagio molto e cantabile double-theme and variations may provide the heart of the performance, given its message of humanity just before the terrible throes of America’s entry into WW II.  The slow stature of the opening chorale theme and its plangent evolution in divided strings and woodwinds testify to Stokowski’s sensitive sonic intuition. The “romantic” elements in portamento and rubato notwithstanding, the movement achieves a spiritual ascendancy that sings in its chains like the sea. Individual melodic lines rise up and interweave with the poignancy we hear in well wrought concerto grosso.

Portrait Leopold Stowkowski

Leopold Stowkowski
Carnegie Hall, 1947

The last movement, taken from the published broadcast, suffers a bit of sonic loss compared to the first three movements, but none could deny the pungent impact of the opening thrust from the brass, basses, and tympani. The sense of the composer’s groping for a fitting strategy for his planned choral finale proceeds with melancholy resolve until the motif that will inform the baritone’s “No more of this sadness,” in English, leads us to the well-wrought, five-note theme each of knows. Stokowski infuses the “discovered” motif with a fervent legato, the winds and grumbling basses adding to the “serpentine” luster of the moment. “All mankind shall be as brothers” rings with passion—albeit a touch of irony, given the historical context—and the four soloists do blend in marvelous harmony, their diction clear, their ensemble crisp. The bassoon solo and tenor Horne invoke the “scherzo” section of this symphony-within-a-movement, and the percussive, janissary march rings with ecstatic ardor that proceeds into a high-borne fugue.  The Westminster Choir itself glows with mystery with “All the world, I embrace you,” the slow movement of this compressed “symphony,” pleading for the better part of Mankind to assert itself less than a month before Pearl Harbor. Another potent, vocal fugue, the sopranos in full competition with the NBC brass, the vocal basses thundering with the tympani. The towering mass of sound well fills the opera house, resonant with “Brothers!” The scurrying figures take us to the vocal quartet’s paean to “Joy, daughter of Elysium.” Despite the resolute force, the ardent sincerity of the jubilant, even manic, final thrust and coda, the “magic” failed to convert the forces of Fascist aggression. But the evidence of Stokowski’s—and Beethoven’s—conviction that love ought to rule the world remains with us, once more.

—Gary Lemco