A Beethoven ‘Choral’ Symphony blessedly free of metronomic speed and ‘authentic’ leanings – there are too many of those in general, each cancelling out the last one – or trying to mix the ‘ancient’ and the ‘modern’, those hybrid readings that try for both worlds and capture neither.
This Ninth from Seoul is up-to-date, flexible and expressive. Myung-Whun Chung and his Seoul Philharmonic have been climbing the international league table during his ten years as music director, and there is no doubt that this Orchestra now plays with admirable unanimity, tonal lustre, responsiveness and character. There is much to like about the performance overall, the intensity of long-held notes in the strings (and this group’s depth of sound), the poetic expression of the woodwinds that are also vividly detailed and full of meaning, and the overall dedication.
Given that Chung has no hang-ups with ‘period’ influence (or, if he has, he left them in his study), one thinks of Furtwängler and Klemperer as being reasonable comparisons, although Chung owes directly to neither; for, in the first movement, there is not the mystery of the former conductor or the granitic qualities of the latter. There is though strength of purpose and also sensitive reflection – which some might find overly sentimental – and there is clearly a very human as well as a deeply musical response going-on here. The scherzo (with all repeats observed, thankfully) is athletically fleet in tempo and played with quicksilver agility, the trio then continuing the bustling yet with expansive episodes beguilingly shaped.
The slow movement is a wonder, properly spacious and beautifully sounded (something so appealing in these lean, vibrato-reduced times), the melodies blossoming out to embrace us. Chung makes a distinction though between and Adagio and Andante, if subtly by balancing the two states so that the movement is ‘as one’ while preserving distinctive diversions. As for the Schiller-inspired finale, although one would like a greater sense of catastrophe at the opening (and on its return), the full-strength and rounded manner to the strings’ recitatives is, again, from yesteryear, as is Chung’s rich moulding of the ‘Ode to Joy’ melody, began as if in a dream and building to a positive anthem; a wide dynamic range is another feature of this reading. The vocal soloists and combined choruses acquit themselves well, but the latter can be a little distant and cloudy (so too the timpani, by the way), although the sopranos at full tilt certainly cut through. The ‘Turkish March’ (with tenor) is unusually jaunty and hip-swinging with the ensuing fugal episode particularly virile. The very end is exhilarating.
All in all, this is an inviting, uplifting and rewarding account of Beethoven 9, performed with instinct and endeavour, conducted by a man (born in 1953) who has held positions in Rome and Paris, and probably elsewhere, so he will no doubt be aware of the way Beethoven ‘interpretation’ has been going in recent years – to his credit, like say Christian Thielemann, he has not joined the crowd.