Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (Choral)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Telarc
WORKS: Symphony No. 9 (Choral)
PERFORMER: Mary Dunleavy (soprano), Elizabeth Bishop (mezzo-soprano), Stephen Gould (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass); Atlanta SO & Chorus/Donald Runnicles
CATALOGUE NO: CD-80603
Donald Runnicles favours clean lines and rhythms: the opening sextuplets are clearly articulated, and the statement of the main theme vigorous and athletic. But this is still big-band playing, and comparison is less with period-instrument performances than with an older tradition that includes Toscanini, Koussevitzky and Szell. What Runnicles doesn’t capture is the incandescent energy in the music: too many of the louder passages are just loud, rather than having a real tension gained through subtleties of phrasing and rubato. In the development section of the first movement, the successive pilings-on of intensity never really prepare for the explosion of the recapitulation. In the same way, the scherzo is well-mannered rather than manic, with the timpani outbursts integrated into the flow instead of shockingly interrupting it, as Toscanini always engineered. More recently, Abbado had something of the same mad glint in his eye, together with the sonorous playing of the Berlin PO, and a more open acoustic.

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Runnicles is most successful in the slow movement, where he sets a nicely flowing tempo and keeps the long lines supple without becoming sentimental. But in the finale, the dramatic element is again missing, with a tame opening dissonant shriek and a lack of urgency in the double bass interruptions. Again I’d turn to Abbado or the recent Rattle (EMI), not only for more physical engagement, but also for a better vocal balance: Runnicles’s soloists are too up-front compared with the chorus – acceptable if the earth moves, but not when it doesn’t. Martin Cotton