Final Summer Thursday Classic with the BSO 

(published first at ionarts)

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L.v.Beethoven, Calm Sea..., Mass in C, J.E.Gardiner, ORR
The final Summer Thursday Classics concert of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s series at Strathmore was a worthy finale, indeed. The 9th Symphony of Beethoven – one of the musical pillars of Western civilization – alone has the nobility and grandeur to make for an eminently uplifting evening. The most welcome coupling with the all-too-rarely heard “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” (Goethe’s Meereststille und gückliche Fahrt further sweetened the deal.

As the program notes (sadly without texts) helpfully pointed out, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is not the description of an all-ideal watery journey but rather contrasts the negative with the positive. A calm sea, when sailing was the way to get about on the seas, was the last thing you needed to get swiftly from A to B. It would have taken forever and you better not have had perishable goods or impatient passengers on board. Get a good wind under those sails though and you’d have advanced speedily and happily if roughly. Accordingly the two elements in this work are calm and mourning for the first poem, wild and joyous for the second.

The BSO and Baltimore Choral Arts Society’s hushed entry was as delicious as the more forceful parts were rousing. Only in terms of clarity (and possibly diction) could the choir have improved upon; without the text it was impossible to catch more than a few words. A minor quibble, admittedly, given the limited number of German speakers in the audience.

Some of the principal players of the BSO were not present – we assume that they are in Marin-Alsop-appreciation-Boot-Camp – but that didn’t keep the BSO from following Jeffrey Kahane with agility and verve. I’ve heard bigger-boned ninths and I’ve heard more otherworldly openings (an entry that suggests, like Wagner’s Rheingold prelude – the very beginning of the universe), but there were no faults to be found. Wherever instruments had particularly exposed moments, excellent individual contributions (flutes especially, horns perhaps less so) could be registered. It was heartening that barely a seat was empty at an continuously impressive Strathmore hall that strikes as slightly less booming than it had been in the first few months. Mr. Kahane took the work at a crisp speed (the 9th, alone among his symphonies, does not have metronome markings, which probably makes whichever chosen speeds less controversial than where there are retrofitted ones as in, say, the third symphony) leaving the Allegro in the Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso of the first movement, for example.

The second movement, separated from the first by well-meant if slightly misplaced applause, with its wonderfully modern, punctuated runs was superb fun and a truly Molto vivace. (If you want to check out how extremely modern that movement really is, watch Clockwork Orange and listen to the Wendy/Walter Carlos synthesized version!) If the beginning of the fourth movement (Presto and Allegro assai vivace, alla Marcia) was not at the same level as the preceding three, it was due to individual instruments breaking out in a part where they should be part of a fluctuating whole. But even that was reined in quickly. The soloists for the performance were Indra Thomas (soprano), Barbara Rearick (mezzo), Michael Hendrick (tenor) and Michael Borowski (bass). The singers can make or break a performance of the 9th – here they did neither. Mr. Borowski certainly left nothing to be desired in terms of volume or sonority. But there was also an inappropriate vibrato that made the words and several phrases rather a mush. Nor were the other soloists’ voices distinctly in the service of the music but rather vice versa. Mr. Hendrick (who I have heard quite a while ago in the NSO’s staged La Clemenza di Tito) was slightly better in that regard and if he didn’t present a great voice, he managed the challenging Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen admirably. The Choral Arts Society music director Tom Hall’s choir, heavy on female voices (67 vs. 26) thundered away with palpable delight and to impressive effect. And though outnumbered almost three to one, the men were hardly lacking in heft.

Even if the soloists turned part of the fourth movement into a vanity fair of vocal chords – humility would have befitted the singers more in this work than operatic flair and ego – it was not sufficient to drag down an entirely enjoyable and moving performance that should have caused at least a few moist eyes. Bravo.

A repeat performance will take place at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall tonight at 7.30PM .

The Ninth out of the Can

So many recordings of the 9th exist that choosing one (why only one, anyway?) might be daunting. And then the question remains whether one wants the most inspired or fervent or beautiful or uplifting performance. Here are a few candidates for consideration along different lines of preference:

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L.v.Beethoven, Symphony No.9, W.Furtwägler, BPh
Historic(al) performances: Furtwängler remains one of the – if not the – most important interpreter of any Beethoven symphony and particularly the 9th. His post-war Bayreuth (EMI) and Lucerne performances are rightly famous. But most searing, truly chilling and heart wrenching are some of the war-time recordings. Performed in the knowledge that they might well be bombed mid-triad, these readings have an urgency that is unsurpassed. You may also wish to read something political into a performance that calls upon all people to become brothers in the midst of fascist Berlin. The 1942 radio broadcast (currently available on Archipel, Music & Arts and Classica D'Oro) might be the best example. Probably not a ‘first’ recording due to the naturally limited sound quality, but once you know the work well, you should give it a try and listen through the hiss to the actual interpretation.

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L.v.Beethoven, Symphony No.9, L.Bernstein, BPh
Historic, if not historical, is also Bernstein’s live Berlin performance (DG) in celebration of German unification. The record is titled “Ode to Freedom” as Lenny poignantly exchanged “Joy” (Freude) with “Freedom” (Freiheit) in the text. Not only appropriate given the context – the end of communist oppression for almost 20 million Germans – but also with a claim to would-be accuracy. As Jeffrey Kahane pointed out in his helpful, brief introduction, Schiller is said to have considered calling the poem “Ode to Freedom”. Perhaps he wasn’t too excited about another spell in prison and thought better of it…? The performance with strong soloists may not be the last word in recordings of the 9th, but it captures the excitement of a historic moment from the midst of our lives very well.

Karajan’s 1962- and more so the 1977 versions are beautiful and offer polish without overdoing it as much as in his 80’s recording (all DG). I always go back to the Abbado recording from the Salzburg festival (live) with the Berlin Philharmonic and an outstanding cast of singers in Jeanne Eaglen, Waltraud Meier, Ben Heppner and Bryn Terfel. On a mid-price Sony, I’d make it the library version, ahead even of a similarly priced, wonderful RCA recording with Günter Wand.

For those who crave authentic instruments and performance practice, the Gardiner recording with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Archiv) is the go-to disc. He, alone among his ‘performance practice’ brethren, pulls the 9th off without making it sound a poor and haggard relative of its more ‘traditionally’ interpreted versions.

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L.v.Beethoven, Symphony No.9, C.Abbado, BPh, Eaglen, Meier, Heppner, Terfel
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L.v.Beethoven, Symphony No.9, J.E.Gardiner, ORR, Orgonasova, von Otter, Cachemaille, Rolfe Johnson

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