This Ninth is worth the wait

Classical Sounds

November 24, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, Jane Eaglen, soprano, Waltraud Meier, mezzo-soprano, Ben Heppner, tenor, Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone, the Swedish Radio Choir and Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, Claudio Abbado conducting (Sony Classical SK 62634):

Incredible as it seems, this is Abbado's first recorded performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He is the only star conductor in the modern era to have waited until he was at least 60 years old to record this last and most celebrated of the mighty nine.

The results achieved here have been worth waiting for. There is nothing about this performance that suggests the routine. Abbado has clearly taken a fresh look at this familiar score. His orchestra plays with enough enthusiasm to suggest that it knows it is a privilege to play this music under this conductor. The roster of soloists assembled is the finest on any Beethoven Ninth of recent vintage, and the chorus is distinguished and well-prepared.

Abbado generally attends to Beethoven's controversial metronome markings, but does not follow them slavishly. While his adagio flows at a relatively rapid rate, for example, it does not move too quickly for tender expressiveness. And the lessons he has learned from the authentic-performance folks -- which show in his care for clear articulation and textures -- are nicely balanced with the goals of achieving some of the breadth and eloquence that the great conductors of the past traditionally brought to the Ninth Symphony.

If the most recent recordings of the Ninth in your collection date from the early stereo era -- such as those by Klemperer (EMI Classics) or Karajan (his first recording on DG) -- and if you are looking for one in updated sound, you won't do better than this.

Puccini, "La Boheme," performed by Roberto Alagna (Rodolfo), Leontina Vaduva (Mimi), Thomas Hampson (Marcello), Simon Keenlyside (Schaunaard), Samuel Ramey (Colline), Ruth Ann Swenson (Musetta), the Philharmonia Orchestra, London Voices, Boys from the London Oratory School, Antonio Pappano conducting (EMI Classics 5 56120): This ranks among the best "Bohemes" in recent years -- which is to say that it ranks far below the classic versions by Beecham (EMI), Toscanini (BMG/RCA) and Karajan (Decca/London). For many listeners, the big selling point will be Alagna's presence as Rodolfo. This Sicilian-born, but French-bred and -trained tenor, sings sweetly enough. But he occasionally strains a little in trying to project a bigger sound than he now actually possesses. The result is not only that his intonation goes somewhat awry, but also that listeners will find themselves worrying about the future of Alagna's potentially glorious instrument. Vaduva sings nicely as Mimi, but she is totally outshone by the dazzling and seductive Musetta of Swenson. The rest of the bohemians could not be better cast than they are here, and Pappano, while neither a Beecham nor a Toscanini, conducts creditably.

Sibelius, Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5, performed by the Berlin Symphony, Kurt Sanderling conducting (Berlin Classics 0092742BC):

These genuinely distinguished performances are part of the Sibelius cycle that Sanderling recorded in what was then East Berlin in the 1970s. They are becoming available in the West for the first time.

By birth and early training, Sanderling is a German conductor. He served his apprenticeship at the Berlin State Opera and was much influenced by Klemperer, Kleiber and Furtwangler. But with the coming of Hitler, Sanderling fled east to the Soviet Union -- first to Moscow and then to what was then Leningrad -- where he ranked among Russia's foremost conductors until his assumption of an East German post in the 1960s.

As an heir to both the German and Russian schools, therefore, Sanderling brings unusually solid qualifications to the role of a Sibelius interpreter. The most important immediate influences upon the Finnish composer were the symphonies of Tchaikovsky, but the composer Sibelius admired most was Beethoven. And great interpreter of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky that he is, Sanderling conducts these two Sibelius symphonies with unusual logic and sympathy, powerfully building the tension between phrases and sensitively painting the music's bleak and brooding emotional landscape.

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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