LSO/Haitink Beethoven Cycle (4)

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Twyla Robinson (soprano)
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
John Mac Master (tenor)
Gerald Finley (bass)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Recorded on 29 & 30 April 2005 in the Barbican Hall, London

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: September 2006
Duration: 68 minutes

It takes a while for this ‘Choral’ to establish itself – a lack of mystery at the opening tends to make the music ‘ordinary’ rather than ‘extraordinary’, but once into its stride, the first movement, convincingly paced regarding clear articulation, is among the more expressive versions of this Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso (a direction that Haitink mirrors unerringly). It’s not as galvanic as some interpretations, though, therefore the timpani outburst in the central climax, while thrilling, is somewhat unexpected and even over-emphatic in the context of the performance. But Haitink’s sense of direction is patrician, so too his detailing (aided by antiphonal violins, the double basses being left-positioned) and the recording – once a louder than usual setting has been found to get everything in focus (better this, though, than one of those ‘disco’ transfers that are always too loud even when turned right down and which also smooth out dynamic contrasts) – does have plenty of impact and air around the instruments. The sound is lucid, yes, but it lacks a bit of heft.

Perhaps, though, Haitink’s civilised and spruce way with Beethoven is ideally recorded (and transferred) – in that both have something lacking while being otherwise admirable. It’s difficult to quibble with any of Haitink’s choices of tempo; and the phrasing is equable and detailing is vivid, the LSO playing with consummate professionalism and much sensitive and sassy input. The scherzo could be more driven, yet it has a playful quality that is likeable – and Haitink observes the long, second repeat (relatively few conductors do; yet it seems so important to retrace these steps) – and the trio is Elysian. It’s during the scherzo that Haitink’s sense of rhythm really comes into its own; as in the first movement, he is not one to intrude, and one becomes aware of a potent, but not forced, sense of momentum.

A few more seconds’ gap between scherzo and slow movement would have been welcome, also some ambience before the bassoons intone the opening of the Adagio. Haitink’s initially spacious view of the music is rather beatific; such radiance is affecting – so too the manner in which Haitink introduces faster tempo contrasts – but this movement can carry a depth of purpose that here, for all the feline playing of the LSO (solos and ensemble magically achieved), gives way to beauty and grace, itself interestingly prophetic of Berlioz’s ‘Scène aux champs’.

The finale’s tempest should crash in – it doesn’t: tension is lost – but ‘embracing’ power is soon found, and Haitink’s handling of the lower strings’ recitatives is reassuringly rhetorical (no ‘historically informed’ clipping of notes for him). Haitink is up-to-date by using the ‘corrected’ Bärenreiter Edition (although he’s not a ‘dirty’ conductor anyway) and his view of the ‘Choral’ is ‘traditional’ and lucid, rather than earth-shattering and explorative. Come the ‘Ode to Joy’, to Schiller’s text, Haitink finds exultance and Gerald Finley does a nice cameo in requesting a change of direction. The London Symphony Chorus is typically outstanding in its lusty outpouring – and its response to dynamic changes is exemplary, too – and the recording now fills out to impressively accommodate the vocal soloists and chorus (yet that leaves a sonic vagary across the four movements: the finale needs to be turned down!).

Bit by bit, one has become enthralled by the LSO and Haitink’s traversal, and if Otto Klemperer’s live version (1957, London, now on Testament SBT 1177) is even more incandescent (and in excellent stereo sound), Haitink, really getting under the music’s skin in the latter stages of the finale, and becoming quite heady, is also one for the shelves; an investment of impetuosity and grandeur that is very satisfying. LSO Live has a policy to eschew applause: on this occasion, it would have been welcome!

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