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SACD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven


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

Erin Wall, soprano
Kendall Gladen, mezzo-soprano
William Burden, tenor
Nathan Berg, bass-baritone
San Francisco Symphony & Chorus/Michael Tilson Thomas
San Francisco Symphony Media 821936-0055-2 Hybrid Multichannel SACD
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Michael Tilson Thomas has had a long and distinguished career, but his Beethoven cycle with the English Chamber Orchestra is easily one of his most forgettable projects of all. Not only is the English Chamber Orchestra not a true Beethoven ensemble, but neither Thomas' conducting nor Columbia's sound is anything special. I don't believe Sony Classical has ever reissued those performances, which speaks volumes in an industry where back-catalog issues are handed out like candy. Happily, this ongoing series from San Francisco is far superior.

As he's aged, Tilson Thomas has gotten rather fussy on the podium, and this sometimes leads to rather micromanaged performances. Thankfully, his Beethoven is generally free of mannerism. This Ninth is extremely well played and recorded. Traditional in scope, it is unabashedly old-school in terms of a big sound. Tempos are moderate, with crisp accents and warm strings and winds. It's not the most thrilling conception out there – Charles Munch makes this music angrier than anyone I've heard – but there is a good deal to enjoy here. There is no question that the San Francisco Symphony is Tilson Thomas' own ensemble; they have a real personality that was completely missing from the conductor's earlier set. There's drama aplenty, but also genuine concern for details, and very few moments that draw our attention to the conductor instead of the music.

The first movement is quite gripping and has your attention from first note to last, but the second movement Molto vivace could use a little more punch. The forward placement of the winds is quite welcome, and recalls great performances by Klemperer and Blomstedt. However, Thomas lacks the massive inevitability of the former and the sheer luminosity of the latter. Despite this, the San Francisco Symphony plays wonderfully, and I doubt that anyone stumbling upon this disc could be too disappointed. The Adagio is a thing of beauty; slower perhaps than today's norm, but never dragging. Again, the winds stand out both from a technical and sonic perspective, and the sweetly singing strings are equally rewarding.

The Finale explodes with the requisite intensity, and Thomas mostly avoids the temptation to personalize the low string lines that follow, though they aren't as flowing as other renditions. There's a comfort in a performance such as this, especially for those who grew up in the LP era; this will sound familiar. There is a certain stiffness in this movement, which remains rather measured until the big reprise of the "Ode to Joy" chorale. Here Tilson Thomas seems to decide that rushing through the choral sections is a good idea. Since they aren't always the most memorable, I tend to agree, but the effect is somewhat jarring after such a slow start. Speaking of the choral singing, it's outstanding, as are the soloists (this work is brutal for all of them) in part because they work so well together. The final push to the end is gloriously sung if lacking in excitement and the overall impression is a performance full of ideas partially realized. Mind you, it still ranks higher than many Ninths, which have few ideas and fewer realizations. As a live performance, it must have been stunning. Perhaps the end result is somewhat less so on disc, but I'm still happy to have this beautiful program, and I imagine others will as well.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman