Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 - Järvi
RCA 88697576062, BVCC-10004
Classical - Orchestral
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9
Christiane Oelze, Petra Lang, Klaus Florian Vogt, Matthias Goerne
Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
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Review by John Miller - October 4, 2009
Järvi's much-acclaimed Beethoven Project with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen reaches its zenith with a brilliant and powerful Ninth Symphony. As a self-governing modern instrument chamber orchestra, the DKO players make musical decisions jointly with Järvi - so that the Executive Producer of the recordings is listed as 'Järvi and the DKO'. The current recordings followed an extensive series of concerts over several years, over which the whole cycle was performed a number of times, 2009 venues including the Théatre des Champs-Elysée, Paris, the Saltzburg Festival and the International Beethovenfest in Bonn. These are thus "settled" and considered readings, not one-off studio captures.
Historically informed playing practises were adopted (sparing vibrato, clear articulation, timpani with taut skins played with hard sticks, and above all preserving the Classical orchestra's balance of winds and strings). The Jonathan del Mar new Beethoven critical edition scores were employed, older editions being corrected in pitch, phrasing, dynamics and introducing Beethoven's own very precise articulation marks for the first time.
With the phenomenal virtuosity and artistry of the DKB players, Järvi convincingly keeps close to Beethoven's own often fast metronome marks, yet shaping the music eloquently and idiomatically, revealing much entrancing detail which has hitherto often been buried in more opaque performances. Immediate and fully-focussed recordings by Polyhymnia International also convey the spatial separation of Beethoven's instrumental writing as never before, opening up the scores even further.
The Ninth Symphony has acquired a mythos of its own and a heavy accretion of performing practices since it was released to the world in 1824. From the heavily re-scored and even partially re-written versions of Wagner and Weingartner, through a post-Romantic slowing down process to modern day lean and swift performances by period instrument bands, interpretations of the Ninth have been fiercely fought over and passionately defended. The work originated, however, in a jolly German drinking song by Schiller - his 'Ode to Joy'. Beethoven hijacked Schiller's sentiments about 'Brotherhood' and a unifying 'Divine Creator', giving them cosmic significance, so that the Ninth can be seen as a final culmination of the European Enlightenment. The scale and structure of the Ninth Symphony was epic for its time, and Beethoven prepared the way for his revolutionary introduction of a chorus and soloists very carefully in the symphony's final movement, which can be identified as a four-movement Classical symphony on its own.
Järvi's firm grasp of the overall structure and its final vocal drama results in a coherently impelled journey of light, shade and rhythm through the first three movements, emphasised by the abrupt and shocking entry of the 4th movement's dissonant 'horror fanfare' immediately after the balm of the slow movement. This may distress some listeners, who may wish for a few moments to savour the delights of the atmospheric 3rd movement before moving on to Chaos. A similarly dramatic attacca is used in Järvi's Seventh Symphony between the Allegretto and Scherzo.
The first performance of Beethoven's Ninth took place in May 18, supervised (but not conducted) by Beethoven and his friends. At its core was the Imperial Royal Theatre Orchestra, considered to be the best in Vienna at the time, which was augmented by many amateur string players, who had to pay a fee for their place in the concert and rehearsals. We do not know if the woodwind were doubled or tripled to balance the strings (this would have been the normal practice), but it was reported that about 90 voices took part, including boys. The second performance was poorly attended, and probably had a smaller orchestra.
Järvi increases the usual string complement of the DKB to 11,8,7,7,4 and employs 45 voices of the Deutcher Kammerchor (S10, A10, T8, B12). This certainly gives a bigger sound but retains the crucial balance of winds and strings, with no danger of the chorus drowning out the orchestra. The choir articulate as clearly as the players, and shares their fluid rhythms and accurate pitching - no strain is shown by the sopranos who have to cope with Beethoven's often inhuman tessitura. The clarity of the whole ensemble, even in the great climaxes, is amazingly transparent, with often lost orchestral details delightfully heard within and above the choral output. The assembled forces yield little in volume, impact and drama to versions with larger membership such as Vänskä's. Incidentally, RCA/Sony do not provide the text for the Ode to Joy in their booklet, a detail not missed by BIS.
Soloists in this new release make a beautifully balanced and blended group - and are better, in my opinion, than Vänskä's. Soprano Christine Oetze shows her Mozart qualifications with a light, flexible contribution - and she lands perfectly on her two top Bs (in the quartet where each singer has their own small cadenza), even making a touching (if unmarked) diminuendo. Mezzo Petra Lang, specialist in Wagner, Berlioz and Mahler, colours her voice artfully and avoids matronly sounds. Golden-voiced and youthful tenor Klaus Florian Vogt greatly enjoys exhorting the male chorus to go blithely on their way to Joy, and approaches Heroic Tenor qualities in his own solo. Baritone Mathias Goerne is simply superb; introducing the Ode to Joy tune with Beethoven's own words "O Friends, not these notes.." in a perfectly natural and genial way, informed by his vast Lieder experience in narrative singing. This moment is too often performed stiffly, leading to embarrassment. He and the orchestra then dance their way through the following "Freude Schöne Götterfunken" impelled by Järvi's lilting rhythms. Beethoven specifies a baritone voice, not the bass, as used by Vänskä.
Järvi and Vänskä have each bequeathed us outstanding Beethoven 9ths on SACD, arguably equal in stature but very different in sound, despite their both using the same edition and application of historical performing knowledge. In terms of tempi, they adhere quite closely to Beethoven's often swift metronome marks (except for the Turkish March in the last movement, where Beethoven's mark is bizarrely slow); they both play all the written repeats (but the DKB often subtly differently inflect repeats) so movement times are very similar, except in the slow movement, where Järvi's exquisitely poetic account flows more swiftly but with breathtaking textures). Differences mainly result from the size and internal balance of the respective ensembles, the amazing clarity of scoring, rhythmic precision and lift of Järvi, and his belief that all the Beethoven symphonies are Classical at their core, while Vänskä seems to favour a touch more Romantic approach and revels in the rich sonorities of a modern symphony orchestra at the top of its form.
The choice is ours to make. Both Ninths are technically superb, they also show that their conductors and orchestras have the real heart for great Beethoven playing. The Järvi Project in particular allows one to hear new ear-catching details at each hearing, and should continue to do so for many years of listening.
Copyright © 2009 John Miller and HRAudio.net