Human Misery, Human Love - Beethoven: Symphony No 9 / Nagano, Montreal Symphony

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BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 • Kent Nagano, cond; Yann Martel (narr); Erin Wall (sop); Mihoko Fujimura (mez); Simon O’Neill (ten); Mikhail Petrenko (bs); Tafelmusik CCh;...

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 Kent Nagano, cond; Yann Martel (narr); Erin Wall (sop); Mihoko Fujimura (mez); Simon O’Neill (ten); Mikhail Petrenko (bs); Tafelmusik CCh; Montreal SO & Ch SONY 88691919442 (66:56) Live: Montreal 9/2011

This is the fourth installment in the Beethoven symphony cycle currently in progress from Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony. What distinguishes this cycle from others is the attempt to place Beethoven’s music in a broader context. In the present case, the disc is titled Human Misery—Human Love , and the performance includes a short text by writer Yann Martel, spoken by the author in English (before the performance of the symphony) and in French (afterward).

In Fanfare 32:6, I reviewed an earlier installment, Ideals of the French Revolution , which included a text by Paul Griffiths read to music by Beethoven, and performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and incidental music for Egmont . While I found the performances of Beethoven worthy, the Griffiths pastiche was more problematic and ultimately unsatisfactory.

After an 11-second burst from the opening of the finale of the symphony, Martel’s narrative titled Where Have You Gone, My Revolutionary Friend? is heard, apparently recorded in a studio. The friend referred to is a sort of Everyman, who has gone astray after such promising beginnings. The question, I suppose, echoes the revolutionary nature of Beethoven’s music, but I’m skeptical of the relevance of this short poetic envoi to either Schiller or the symphony (but then I’m not an admirer of Martel’s work). The narrative is brief; alternatively, the track is easily skipped.

Luckily, the performance of the symphony itself is a strong one. The first movement opens with edgy strings using little vibrato; the audio production offers admirable clarity and sonic punch within a spacious acoustic, a tribute to the new venue (the Maison Symphonique de Montréal) that was inaugurated with this performance. Urgency is communicated through a moderately brisk tempo, which is sustained throughout the movement; the contrasting lyrical theme is poignantly hopeful. The same sense of urgency carries over into the Scherzo, with its infectious rhythms and buoyant enthusiasm (and its repeats intact). The timpani are impressively thunderous but never overly prominent. The Trio ripples along fluently, a lighthearted little melody amid the bustle of the Scherzo.

The initial ( adagio ) tempo of the third movement is not slow, but the feeling of calm and hope that suffuses it is amply transmitted. The pure string tone helps to reinforce the lack of overly emphatic or indulgent emotionalism, and the simple declaration of faith at the end provides an effective coda. The opening of the finale is more diffuse energy than startling interruption, though the cellos and basses are stern enough in their didactic recitation. Bass Mikhail Petrenko has the lighter timbre of a baritone, and sings with lyric sensitivity, accompanied by the nimble orchestra. The vocal quartet blends well and is situated in front of the choruses, bringing a coherence and balance to the sung text (aided by the relatively modest-sized choral contingent). The sprightly alla Marcia allows tenor Simon O’Neill to hold forth with jaunty panache (an echo of his Wagner roles). “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” is properly devotional, while the double fugue is more maestoso than energico , but is effective nonetheless. The presto is exciting, and the purely instrumental coda is prestissimo indeed.

I can understand the thinking behind the decision to provide an extramusical context for Nagano’s performances of the symphonies: There are so many choices in the Beethoven symphony discography that any innovation might just elicit interest in this particular cycle. I hope, though, that if these symphony recordings are collected into a set, the extraneous and unnecessary distractions will be discarded so that the symphonies (and various companion pieces) can be left to themselves.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot

Product Description:

  • Release Date: April 10, 2012

  • UPC: 886919194425

  • Catalog Number: 88691919442

  • Label: Sony

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Conductor: Kent Nagano

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Montreal Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Martel, Nagano