Beethoven: Choral Symphony

Author: 
Richard Osborne

Beethoven: Choral Symphony

  • Symphony No. 9, 'Choral'
  • Symphony No. 9, 'Choral'

Menuhin's account of the Ninth Symphony begins impressively. Though the tempo is quite quick, with tension running high, there is also a sense of spaciousness and a sense of quiet that is almost Brucknerian. And this is an impression that is helped rather than hindered by the relatively spacious and airy acoustic of All Saints', Tooting where the recording was made.
It is an opening that anticipates certain aspects of the performance, not least its vitality and human articulacy. (In this respect, one is reminded of some of Casals's Beethoven conducting.) Later on, the sense of this being an avowedly joyful account of the Ninth becomes more marked, both in the slow movement, which Menuhin takes reasonably swiftly, the second subject gloriously phrased, and in the finale. Here it is obvious that words matter—the joyous import of Schiller's text—though in getting his effects Menuhin often presses his singers somewhat unceremoniously round some of the music's more awkward corners. In the Scherzo, the RPO can cope more easily, though, again, this is rather a quick performance, one more governed by tradition or private instinct than by Beethoven's perfectly good metronome marking. The Trio is also conventionally quick, and here the RPO winds do sound a shade harassed. The Trio's repeat is observed but the repeat of the Scherzo's second part is omitted.
Elsewhere in the symphony, rhythms are not always absolutely stable, with a tendency to hurry the ends of phrases and certain rhetorical phrase-groups. I also had the feeling, in the first movement, that the opening—Menuhin casting his bread on the waters—is more impressive than the recapitulation and coda which arrive curiously unladen. It is as though Menuhin the conductor is more adept at sowing than reaping: which is the reverse of Furtwangler or Klemperer (both EMI) or Toscanini (RCA) in this music.
And it is the comparison with these old masters that rather points up the limitations of this, not as a once-off performance of the Ninth, spirited and affectionate, but as a recording to live with. There is too much that is merely approximate in the physical execution of the music, despite able soloists and a dedicated, full-throated choir. It is also odd to hear the slow movement and the finale as a segue, though it is only possible to conjecture whether this is rogue editing or a further earnest of Menuhin's burning enthusiasm for the music.'

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