Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (Choral)

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Vox Legends
WORKS: Symphony No. 9 (Choral)
PERFORMER: Soloists; Vienna Singverein, Vienna Pro Musica SO/Jascha Horenstein
CATALOGUE NO: VOX 7809 ADD mono (1958)
It is perhaps not surprising to discover that music-making often takes on an extra degree of urgency during periods of great political turmoil. Certainly this impression is confirmed while listening to recent releases on Music & Arts that focus attention on German radio concerts and recordings made during the darkest years of the Second World War. The latest in this invaluable series presents the young and volatile EUGEN JOCHUM in symphonies by Beethoven, Mozart and Bruckner. On the first of a two-disc set, Jochum delivers a blisteringly urgent account of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic made as late as January 1945. Furtwängler’s influence is prevalent in the rhythmic and temporal fluidity of Jochum’s interpretation, though the younger conductor exercises greater Classical restraint than his mentor. Following this comes a harshly recorded 1948 performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 which, despite showing a commendable lightness of touch, exposes some annoying flaws in orchestral ensemble. Much better to my mind is a 1944 Bruckner Third Symphony with Jochum’s own Orchestra of the Hamburg State Theatre – a performance which has the same degree of conviction as the maestro’s later recordings of the work, but projects even more daringly impetuous changes of tempi within the outer movements.

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A 1949 Bruckner Eighth Symphony from HERMANN ABENDROTH and the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra is a more sober affair, hampered in the first movement by disappointingly muddy sound. But Abendroth has the full measure of Bruckner’s epic symphonic structures, patiently shaping the ebb and flow of the musical narrative so as to make the final climaxes of the slow movement and finale all the more powerful. The Bruckner is generously accommodated on one CD leaving the second of this two-disc set for a spirited if unremarkable account of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony dating from 1944, and a rather more interesting 1939 performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony with the Orchestra of Reichsenders Breslau which shows Abendroth making a very distinctive phrasing of the three-note patterns in the first movement.

Although Abendroth’s Brahms offers a judicious mixture of spontaneity and intensity, it is nowhere near as individual or compelling as that of WILLEM MENGELBERG. The second volume of the great Dutch conductor’s commercial 78rpm recordings of Brahms’s orchestral works, brilliantly remastered on Naxos by Ward Marston, remains absolutely indispensable. In my experience no interpreter has come within a mile of Mengelberg in drawing so much interesting musical detail from the Academic Festival Overture, and the 1931 recording of the Third Symphony is just as fascinating in its diversity of expression and flexibility of nuance. Of course, Mengelberg could not have achieved such remarkable results without the stunningly fluid playing of the Concertgebouw Orchestra which seems to follow his every modification of tempo with breathtaking precision. Such unanimity of ensemble is used to particularly unsettling effect in the Tragic Overture where Mengelberg’s disturbing shifts of emphasis and fragmentary phrasing inevitably remind us that the recording was made in 1942 at a time when occupying Nazi forces were monitoring the political reliability of the orchestral personnel.

Judging by the recent crop of reissues and historic broadcast performances, there are still many recordings from the Fifties that deserve wider dissemination. Hänssler has made a good start plundering the vaults of South-West German Radio for recordings by the veteran conductor CARL SCHURICHT. The first disc in what should be an outstanding series features orchestral excerpts from Wagner’s Tristan, Parsifal and Götterdämmerung recorded between 1950 and 1966 with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Schuricht’s impeccable command of orchestral balance and sonority and his avoidance of exaggerated gestures make these performances sound both fresh and involving. A similarly unaffected approach is manifested in HERMANN SCHERCHEN’s 1957 Westminster recordings with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra of two Russian orchestral showpieces – Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Neither performance has that extra degree of high-voltage passion one finds in more self-consciously virtuosic or hard-driven interpretations. Some may find this a disadvantage, but Scherchen’s capacity to allow the music to speak for itself deserves admiration.

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I wish I could be similarly enthusiastic about a further compilation of Russian music by another conductor whose early years were spent working in Germany. Yet Vox’s double CD of Prokofiev symphonies and ballet music under JASCHA HORENSTEIN is marred by very poor quality sound, especially in the Fifth Symphony. The Colonne Concerts Orchestra plays with great spirit throughout this work, but the orchestral balance, which places the piano closer to the microphone than almost every instrument, is bizarre to say the least, and there is a blemish in the transfer at the beginning of the finale. A better reminder of Horenstein’s inspirational conducting can be found in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony made in Vienna in 1958. Admittedly the playing of the Vienna Pro Musica Symphony is not always immaculate, but the all-star cast of soloists including irrepressible tenor Julius Patzak and a full-throated chorus make the finale a memorable and moving experience.