BEETHOVEN Symphony No 9 (Bernard)
The catalogue is bursting with recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that are undeniably flawed yet nevertheless contain enough points of interest to beckon one’s attention. This rather hardscrabble performance with David Bernard and the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony is a case in point.
If the first movement’s flattened-out dynamics rob the opening of its mystery and gathering momentum, the reduced forces and smaller number of strings bring lots of woodwind detail and brass punctuations to the fore. Bernard observes both repeats in the Scherzo and takes the composer’s Molto vivace to heart, while the musicians’ collective intensity and drive compensate for their tendency to rush at times (the resonant and diffuse ambience doesn’t help).
The Adagio disappoints in regard to perfunctory, inexpressive phrasing of the second theme and patchy intonation in some of the more exposed passages. However, the cello/double bass recitatives come vividly alive in the finale’s opening section, and the pastoral variations on the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme likewise prove well contoured and shaped. Brian Kontes’s gorgeous bass sonority doesn’t compensate for stretching his opening solo to arguably aria-like dimensions, while soprano Kristin Sampson stands out in the vocal quartet sequences for her wobbly vibrato above the staff. Bernard drives the Alla marcia to blaring, hard-pressed effect, undermining tenor Cameron Schutza’s superb rendering of the tenor solo. The combined choral forces do their finest work in loudest moments but the unison tenor/bass lines at the start of the Andante maestoso (13'59") lack sufficient tonal focus. As for the coda, Bernard adheres to Beethoven’s metronome markings that minimise any contrast between the pentultimate Maestoso and final Prestissimo.
In sum, Bernard and his musicians approach the Ninth like a brave soul who scales Mount Everest wearing no more than a sweat suit and sneakers, and still manages to arrive at the summit in one piece. More or less …