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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

ASO 1007

Symphony #9 in D minor "Choral", Op. 125

Benita Valente, soprano
Janice Taylor, mezzo-soprano
Richard Leech, tenor
William Stone, baritone
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Robert Shaw
Recorded live, 21 May 1988
ASO Media CD-1007 74:36
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A historic event is something important, a historical event is something that has passed. The jewel case for this Beethoven Ninth proudly proclaims this performance as the former, but it's unfortunately the latter and nothing more. Although this was Shaw's final concert as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, he recorded many major choral works with these forces following his departure. Many of those albums were very fine. This is not one of them.

The first three movements refuse to be special. They are excellently played: there is noise when there needs to be, and beauty to boot. It's also very bland, and fails to be memorable. There isn't any tension, or real insight. You don't have to pull this music like taffy for it to make an impact, either. Compare this to a great performance like Fricsay. Like Shaw, there doesn't really seem to be any ego, no personal stamp that shouts at you. But how much more effortful Shaw's climaxes sound! Fricsay is flowing, gloriously recorded, and has the Berlin Philharmonic playing at a level that easily went above their normal day for 1958. Shaw has excellent forces, but even the sense of occasion fails to inspire.

Mind you, the last half-hour or so is pretty stunning. If there was any doubt that Shaw's choral forces would give their all for their departing leader, they are put to rest here. The singing is not only infinitely more passionate than the orchestral conception at hand, it's also clear as a bell and you can practically take diction lessons. The problem we have here is that you could say the same thing about Shaw's contributions almost 30 years before, when no less than George Szell asked Shaw to lead the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. The singing is ideal, the soloists once described by a critic elsewhere as a "dream team", and the interpretation by Szell is overall miles ahead of what we have here. For some reason, ASO Media also adds over eight minutes of applause, which is separately tracked. I imagine this is for armchair conductors like myself, who are always upset that the applause ends before we have pretended to give every second violist a bow. Seriously, who is this track for? The people who were there? They remember how long they stood, and if they left early to beat the rush. A truly historic event should speak for itself, something that this unexceptional concert was not. I hope that ASO Media, which to this point had been careful about repertoire selection and quality, chooses more wisely for further releases. This is for students with a score, and Shaw's loyal fans. Everyone else has so many other choices.

Copyright © 2016, Brian Wigman