Beethoven
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)
Mary Dunleavy (soprano)
Elizabeth Bishop (mezzo-soprano)
Stephen Gould (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)

Atlanta Symphony Chorus

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles

Recorded January 2003 in Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia
CD No: TELARC SACD-60603
[Hybrid CD/SACD]
Duration: 69 minutes
Reviewed: December 2003
If finding myself on that desert-island, I would miss two Chorals in particular – the live Philharmonia Klemperer from 1957 on Testament, and the first of Solti’s Chicago recordings for Decca. Now, I would also miss Donald Runnicles’s vigorous and dedicated account.
This is not a seismic wave-making version from Atlanta. What it is, though, is an uncommonly musical and thoughtfully prepared reading that is communicative, inviting and moreish. Runnicles has secured a polished and committed response from his Atlanta forces (he is Principal Guest Conductor there).
In his preparation, Runnicles has been meticulous. Yet, such I-dotting and T-crossing does not stand in the way of spontaneity or open-hearted expression; indeed Runnicles’s sense of rhythmic vitality keeps the music moving; not only that, such motion always seems in search of something – and we arrive too.
If tempos are unexceptionable, Runnicles’s attention to detail, to bowing, to balance – and all other musical criteria – reports a labour of love. What emerges on the finished Hybrid (that is, playable on both CD and SACD machines) is not a transcript of a conductor who is able to put the work together, rather it is of a deeply considerate musician who inspires through alertness and absolute faith in the music.
With hearty and pristine singing from the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, a better-than-average solo quartet, and splendidly attuned orchestral playing, Runnicles achieves an ample climactic arc in the first movement, a buoyant Scherzo (the important second repeat observed), a slow movement of measured eloquence in which the Andante contrasts are tellingly observed and, after a perfect attacca, the choral finale is seamless in its tempo relationships and wholly natural unfolding. Indeed, Runnicles gets so many things ’right’ – whether in expressive weighting, rhythmic pointing, dynamic contrasts or cumulative tension; another pluspoint is his use of antiphonal violins.
This is a version of this seminal work that has given me great satisfaction over several listens. I must report, though, that the sound when heard in the CD format is pale, grey and remote (in relative DDD terms). On SACD, using high-quality (expensive) headphones – if not taking the Surround, multichannel option – the reproduction, while not the last word in audiophile acclamation, is certainly more present and fuller-toned. Ultimately, though, it’s the music that matters – and its performance: in this respect, Telarc has a winner on its hands.

 

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