Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125
Irmgard Seefried (soprano), Rosette Anday (mezzo-soprano), Anton Dermota (tenor) & Paul Schöffler (bass-baritone)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 30 May 1953 in Großer Saal, Musikverien, Vienna
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: October 2011
CD No: ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5034
Duration: 74 minutes
There seem to be many examples of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony on compact disc (covering the years 1937 to 1954). This 1953 version boasts the legend “First release outside Japan”. That’s an official stance, of course, for this particular account (recorded in the year before the conductor died – there is another taping of the Ninth from three months before his passing) has no doubt (one imagines) already been the subject of a ‘pirate’ release. But this ICA issue sounds kosher in terms of source material; smooth and blemish-free.
Suffice it to say that this present performance, in decent enough sound, quite immediate if a little ‘misty’ in terms of the very quietest passages – but take any more hiss away (quite high here but in no way troublesome) and these most-hushed bars would be tonally contaminated – is perfectly satisfying and faithfully presents Furtwängler’s typically large-scale and unvarnished vision of the work. It is huge in conception stretching to 74 minutes, potentially fifteen minutes or so longer than an ‘authentic’ report in which the long second repeat in the scherzo would almost certainly be observed (it is vital; Furtwängler doesn’t take it though, but Klemperer and Toscanini did). That gives an idea of the epic scale with which Furtwängler unfolds this music- and life-changing symphony. The first movement (the Vienna Philharmonic taking a while to settle, or get used, again, to Furtwangler’s unpredictable beat) is unflinching at climaxes (well contained by the recording, very well re-mastered by Paul Baily) as part of a lofty and mysterious – if not the fieriest or most cataclysmic – traversal. The scherzo though is superbly incisive (the da capo seems quicker), the trio perky and Elysian.
With the Adagio we reach the heart of the symphony, certainly in Furtwängler’s deeply felt and eternal impression, glowing with humanity and profundity in this wonderfully sustained cathedral-suggesting tempo (bordering on Largo), VPO violins sweet and expressive, woodwind-players mellifluous and savouring of their long lines, although trumpeters (as recorded) are edgily close even though the recording admirably marries brightness and bass-depth. With the great choral finale, setting Schiller’s Ode to Joy, the conductor’s generosity of phrase and living presence brook no compromise of transcendence, the microphones busy to dynamic changes. The solo singers are a stellar line-up (if often balanced too close, the choir dwarfed in comparison), Paul Schöffler more a Lieder singer on his initial “not these tones” appearance rather than either an operatic declaimer or a preacher, and he is elated in the ‘Turkish’ episode. Furtwängler’s approach is stoical rather than joyful, which adds a sense of philosophical ceremony; the “millionen” section briefly becomes redolent of monks’ plainsong. Following much suspense and exhilaration, Furtwängler ends (upsets) the work by typically carousing messily through the final page.
Nevertheless, if not quite matching Klemperer, who is arguably the most comprehensive interpreter of this boundary-breaking work (Testament SBT1177 for a great example of him conducting it, 1957, stereo, also recorded live), then this Furtwängler is a noteworthy performance, one that is commensurate to his younger volatile self if now tempered by his older perhaps more-self-controlled nature. Certainly the originating tape sounds generally well to complete a job very well done by ICA Classics.