Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)
Amanda Roocroft (soprano), Fiona James (mezzo-soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor) & Neal Davies (bass)
The New Company
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Charles Mackerras
Recorded 26 August 1994 in Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: November 2011
CD No: OAE RELEASED
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD254
Duration: 64 minutes
This is the third recording of Sir Charles Mackerras’s interpretation of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony on CD. There is also an excellent version with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic from 1991 and a recording on Hyperion from 2006 – another Edinburgh Festival concert, this time with the Philharmonia Orchestra.
There is not a great deal of difference between the three readings but the recording techniques do give sounds of different qualities. For example, The New Company appears to be the most forceful of the three choruses. Is it the nature of the singers or is it the slightly more forward (but convincing) balance afforded them by the BBC engineers? As for the OAE, it seems more distant (no doubt smaller than the Philharmonia) here than in the later Edinburgh performance at the identical venue with internal balance less well defined. In particular the flute seems to predominate within an otherwise reticent woodwind group (no objection to the forward piccolo in the final pages though). Bassoon solos – especially in the scherzo – could have been more positive (although they improve on each repeat, all taken).
I realise that this is a representation of a Radio 3-broadcast transmission so it would not be fair to demand the sort of refinement available during studio sessions; nevertheless in those rare moments where previously I was concerned that Mackerras’s dramatic intentions were not being properly fulfilled, I am now a little more disappointed still. I suggested in the 2006 Philharmonia reading that the end of the first movement was a bit plain; this 1994 version has even less impact. Similarly when in the later recording at the return of the first verse in the finale I said in my review that it “made the proverbial chill run up my spine”, in 1994 it still sounds grand and dignified, but the chill factor is not there.
One other small difference in the new issue lies in the third movement which is slightly slower than in either of the other versions and this is to its advantage. Mackerras is exceptionally sensitive in this music and I find this certainly the most-tender reading of the three. There are many subtleties of phrasing and the soft accompaniments by pizzicato strings and sometimes by quiet timpani, are graciously integrated into the melodic line. The finale is notable for its dramatic continuity. Mackerras is conducting a symphony here; others have presented us with a mere series of episodes. Perhaps the lighter timbre of the two male soloists is one reason for a feeling that there is less intensity than in the conductor’s other readings, but in terms of technique and accuracy in these demanding episodes I am much impressed by both.
There is every reason to explore Mackerras’s noble reading of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony and this disc has the advantage of being available separately; his other two readings seem to be attached to complete sets of the symphonies. I still prefer either of them yet all three versions present a distinguished interpretation.