8.2/10
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Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 Op. 125 (1991)

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Cast

Credited cast:
Kurt Masur ...
Conductor
Venceslava Hruba-Freiberger ...
Sopran
Doris Soffel ...
Mezzo-sopran
James Wagner ...
Tenor
Gwynne Howell ...
Bass
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
George-Christoph Biller ...
Chorus Master: Chor der Gewandhaus Leipzig
Gert Frischmuth ...
Chorus Master: Leipzig Radio Chor
Ekkehard Schreiber ...
Chorus Master: Chor der Gewandhaus Leipizig
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Documentary | Music

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1 December 1991 (UK)  »

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Very good but a disappointing chorus brings things down
3 November 2013 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

Beethoven's Choral symphony- his ninth and last- is my personal favourite of Beethoven's nine symphonies and is one of his best works generally. This 1991 performance conducted by Kurt Masur has loads of impressive components about it, but it is not as good as the Bernstein(excellent) and especially Karajan(as close to perfection as one can get) DVDs, and there are a few things- one major- that is left wanting.

Where it is chiefly let down is with the chorus, which is very disappointing here. The diction is almost unintelligible(yeah German is not an easy language to sing in but there is a sense of most not learning the words or pronunciation properly), while the phrasing is choppy, everybody looked so solemn(for such a dramatic and uplifting movement) and there is a lack of musicianship. The ensemble is scrappy- in the very last part they sound as though they're struggling to keep up- and the vocal production is anaemic(the fugue-like section fails to rouse completely). The lower voice parts can barely be heard over the sopranos- though the men had their moments in their exposed parts, and even they don't carry that much over the orchestra(maybe sound balance was part of the problem). And I'm not entirely sure why children were in the chorus in a work as heavy for chorus as the Choral symphony is with the stratospheric soprano part.

The camera work is generally good- it at least acknowledges the orchestra, soloists and chorus- but can have a tendency to be on the repetitive side. There also could have been less close-ups of Kurt Masur and for too lengthy stretches, and considering how histrionic Masur's stage deportment can be(almost making that of Valery Gergiev seem more subtle in comparison) it's entertaining for a bit but gets distracting later.

Masur is a very gifted conductor and brings out some really beautiful playing from the orchestra, the strings and woodwind(particularly in the first and third movements) are especially good and the brass certainly give plenty of welly when called for. And his tempos are good, the finale has a very exciting tempo- the prestissimo literally at breackneck speed- and the sublime(but potentially elephantine in performance) slow movement is just beautiful even at a brisker tempo, the Wilhelm Furtwangler comparison I saw once is apt.

If there was one tempo that doesn't work it is for the haunting coda from the first movement(done appropriately broodingly otherwise), starting with the lower strings/bass and gradually getting louder. From personal preference it is done too slowly and almost lumbering here. Masur also deserves extra kudos for including most of the repeats in the Scherzo, something that is not always done even with Karajan on record. I remember a couple of years back participating in a performance of the symphony with a recording without the repeats fresh in my mind(Karajan's if memory serves correct) and being surprised by sections being repeated. The pause between the third and fourth movements was unnecessary and too long as well.

And we mustn't forget the soloists who are really exceptional(that everybody did it from memory was remarkable) and carry very well over the orchestra, and in the lovely section before the prestissimo they take real care blending with one another. Special mention should go to tenor James Wagner, who not only sings "Laufet Brueder, Eure Bahn" with a strong unstrained voice with good musicality but he also sings the words with meaning and with a sense of knowing what he was singing about. Gwynne Howell as ever sings nobly and shows very expressive phrasing. His "O Freunde, Nicht Diese Toene" that starts the finale shows great command and makes you sit up and listen(if not quite as much as Martti Talvela does for Bernstein). Venceslava Hruba-Freiburger has a rich soprano sound that floats effectively in the ending sections. Doris Soffel- looking most elegant sings firmly and with good projection- though her voice somewhat carries the least out of the four soloists- and her blending with Wagner is lovely.

Overall, a very good performance especially for the orchestra, soloists and mostly excellent conducting but one questionable tempo and unneeded pause, too many close-ups of Masur and in particular a very disappointing chorus stop it from being outstanding. 7/10 Bethany Cox


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