Beethoven Symphony No. 9, Choral


Beethoven’s euphoric Symphony No.9, like his symphony No.5, is one of those pieces of classical music which transcends the barrier between musical genres – one of the few pieces of the classical canon in the popular consciousness. Few can fail to be uplifted and caught up in the joyous Ode to Joy finale. For this performance, recorded live at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1994, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were joined by the renowned conductor and long-time collaborator, Sir Charles Mackerras, a partnership between him and the OAE that lasted almost a quarter of a century.

This is Signum’s second release with the OAE, following a release of Monteverdi’s Vespers (SIGCD237) earlier this year. The next release, planned for December, will feature Sarah Connolly performing Mahler’s Totenfier and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with the OAE under Vladimir Jurowski.





What people are saying

 "…one of the most thrilling Beethoven interpretations I have ever heard. It bristles with revolutionary spirit … The OAE play like gods and demons…"

The Financial Times
"…the slow movement is full of spiritual balm. The outer movements are elemental in proper revolutionary style; the finale’s found British soloists are excellent. Highly recommended."
The Mail on Sunday

"Fine choral singing by the New Company, and Mackerras’s masterly control, make the finale as electrifying as only it can be."
The Times

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
The New Company
Sir Charles Mackerras, conductor

Amanda Roocroft, soprano
Fiona Janes, mezzo-soprano
John Mark Ainsley, tenor
Neal Davies, baritone

Release date:24th Nov 2011
Order code:SIGCD254
Barcode: 635212025420

 This is a performance on period instruments by a chamber orchestra, but that is not to say that the sound lacks body: 44 string players are listed and the woodwind section is doubled. The OAE’s playing is lean and muscular but there’s plenty of espressivo and dolce lyricism too. Confirmation that this is indeed a live recording comes from a couple of rather endearing squeals from the oboes in the Scherzo and an early flute entry in the finale.

Sir Charles takes a brisk approach to the score, his timings being much the same as those of Osmo Vänskä and Paavo Järvi. In the outer movements, you feel that he is concerned at all costs to keep the music on the move. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. In the first movement, for instance, the mighty beginning of the recapitulation arrives almost unnoticed; whereas when, in the finale, Mackerras pretty well ignores the Maestoso of the chorus’s last phrase, the effect is thrilling.
The four soloists are excellent. In particular, the purity of Amanda Roocroft’s soprano makes Beethoven’s weird vocal writing much less of a trial than usual. The chorus is fine, though the sopranos don’t quite reach their top As in the variation before ‘Seid umschlungen’. The balance is satisfactory but some details are lost: the quiet timpani octave leap in the Scherzo, the bassoon doubling the violins in the finale. But for a modern live recording, if you don’t mind a Scherzo shorn of repeats, you might prefer Klaus Tennstedt.

Gramophone, Richard Lawrence

 The sleeve-note of this disc describes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as ‘euphoric’, and that is exactly the word to apply to this performance. No passage from darkness to light here, but a pervasive exaltation even in the first movement, though it strongly reminded me of the Chinese proverb that if you ride a tiger you can’t get off. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Charles Mackerras don’t ever sound as if they would contemplate getting off the tiger they mount in the opening seconds of the work, promising a roller-coaster and fulfilling the promise in every bar. One might complain that this way of interpreting such a complex work is denaturing, but listen and see if, after some initial doubts, you don’t find it wholly convincing and thrilling from start to finish. It is a far finer and more penetrating performance than the one recorded in Edinburgh with Mackerras in 2006, with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The third movement is brisk for my taste, bur the vibrato-free strings would make a slower account sound odd. And the last movement raises no doubts, partly since the New Company chorus and soloists, above all John Mark Ainsley and Neal Davies, are stupendous. Moreover, instead of seeming to negate the first three movements, it comes across as an inevitable fulfillment of them. However many Ninths you own, add this to your treasury.


BBC Music Magazine, Michael Tanner

 The Music I recently witnessed a live ‘Choral’ which brought home to me that Beethoven’s final symphony still inhabits the frontiers of avant-garde composition. What do I mean by that? No composer has grappled so vigorously with the fundamental physics of harmony as Beethoven does in his first movement, then delivered on such a humane and joyful finale.

The Performance Not to be muddled with Charles Mackerras’s 2006 ‘official’ recording of Beethoven’s Ninth on Hyperion – although as both performances were recorded at the Edinburgh Festival some confusion is inevitable – this is an archival 1994 performance, the occasional smudged orchestral entry and a slightly distant recording environment not detracting from Mackerras’s heartfelt and gutsy viewpoint. The highlight: a spectacularly well-judged second movement Scherzo, punctuated by insanely hard-hitting timpani eruptions, kept persistently edgy and thrillingly unstable throughout. Mackerras’s vocalists are top-notch too, and the long finale is brisk but plugged into seemingly inexhaustible momentum.
The Verdict With recent state-of-the-nation recordings from Riccardo Chailly and Emmanuel Krivine, no one’s going to consider this their ‘go to’ Beethoven Nine. But Mackerras’s account has drive and integrity in spades. A souvenir of a much-loved British conductor.

Classic FM Magazine, Philip Clark

 Every year the reviewers at MusicWeb International are asked to select their Recordings of the Year. In 2008 I could have kicked myself because I failed to nominate the superb Hyperion Beethoven symphony cycle recorded live by Sir Charles Mackerras at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival (review). How I could have overlooked one of the finest Beethoven cycles to appear for years is beyond me; the only excuse I can make was that I?d forgotten the set because it had not come to me for review.
That Mackerras cycle was given using orchestras playing on modern instruments. For the first eight symphonies Sir Charles used the Scottish Chamber Orchestra but for the Ninth the larger forces of the Philharmonia were engaged. I presume this was done because the Edinburgh Festival Chorus was singing and it was felt that the orchestra should be in scale. However, for those wondering what a Mackerras reading of the Ninth using smaller forces might sound like we now have the answer thanks to Signum. They have issued this 1994 Edinburgh performance which employed the period forces of the Orchestra of The Age of Enlightenment. The choral contribution is in scale because the chamber choir, The New Company, was on hand for the finale.

The sound of this performance is bracing from the outset. The lean, spare textures ensure that the playing of the OAE comes across with great clarity. In particular, the woodwind lines are easily audible. The period timpani, played with hard sticks make their presence felt at climaxes. Mackerras directs a vigorous reading of I, impelling the music forward with consistent and impressive energy. The overall impression that I had was that this is a very dynamic performance.
The scherzo is lithe and crisp. The performance has great rhythmic drive, as is essential. In the trio the woodwind playing is deft but, in case anyone should think that this is a ?hair shirt? stuff ? it most certainly is not. The warmth of the strings in the trio should provide reassurance. Once or twice the principal horn displays little moments of fallibility but these are very much the exception; the general standard of playing in this performance is high indeed. One thing did surprise me: the well-articulated timpani sound almost modern but I?m sure that?s just because my ears had adjusted to the sound produced.
In III Mackerras and his players bring out the profundity of the music extremely well. However, the profundity is not achieved through being ponderous. On the contrary, the music is kept on the move at all times. Indeed, from 7:47 onwards the string decorations around the slower-moving theme (wind and horns) sounds almost jaunty at Mackerras?s fluent tempo. The string and woodwind playing is very fine in this movement ? and the horn playing is completely back on form.
At the start of IV I like the way that the cello and bass recitative passages are dispatched briskly; their rhetoric is almost conversational ? the passage is delivered in a similar fashion on Sir Charles?s later Hyperion disc. When the Big Tune arrives it unfolds easily at first and when the full orchestra gives out the melody (4:33) the theme sounds properly jubilant. Neal Davies?s opening solo (5:58) is impressive and clearly articulated. When the choir enters they make a very favourable impression and everything is pleasingly in proportion: the choir doesn?t swamp the orchestra when singing full out. The New Company is a professional ensemble and it shows. Sample the way they sing the passage beginning ?Seid umschlungen Millionen?, especially once all four parts are involved, and note the attention to detail ? sforzandi, for example. I suspect there are some male singers in the alto section, which has an excellent cutting edge. When the full choir proclaims ?Freude, schöner Götterfunken? (12:54) the singing is excellent and really clear. The passage is as exultant as it should be and I relish the fact that this full sound is not massive. One has the impression of joyful eagerness.
The soloists make a good and well-balanced quartet. Mackerras adopts a brisk pace for the tenor?s martial solo (from 9:12). I like that. It?s a similar approach to that of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, though Gardiner takes it faster on his recording. I prefer the Mackerras speed, which is similar to the one he adopts in his Hyperion recording. I also like John Mark Ainsley?s agile and accurate delivery of this difficult solo. I?ve already mentioned the excellent Neal Davies. The ladies don?t have such prominent solos as their male colleagues but they sing very well indeed in the quartets. The final passage for the soloists ? their intertwining quartet at the poco adagio, ?Alle Menchen werden Brüder?- is expertly blended and eloquently delivered.
The orchestra?s busy contrapuntal section that follows the tenor solo (10:40 – 11: 54) is vigorous but Mackerras and his players make every strand clear ? no mean accomplishment. Indeed, the orchestral playing throughout the finale is alert, responsive and expertly articulated. The last few minutes of the movement ? the piccolo a telling presence – are exultant, the music sweeping all before it; small wonder the Edinburgh audience responds enthusiastically.
The sound for this performance originates, I think, from BBC radio engineering. It?s good and lots of detail registers though occasionally one is conscious of the big Usher Hall acoustic. This is an excellent account of the Ninth and forms an invaluable supplement to Sir Charles?s superb cycle of the symphonies on Hyperion.

MusicWeb International (RECORDING OF THE MONTH), John Quinn

 Here’s a period-instrument Beethoven Ninth Symphony that must have been a thrilling experience in the concert hall. Since this is a live performance, I should say right away that there are a few slips, the occasional false entry and other passing distractions – but I hope that won’t deter anyone from exploring this extraordinarily vibrant and electrifying account of a masterpiece that Charles Mackerras performed with particular relish on special occasion. This is his fourth Beethoven ‘Choral’ Symphony to have been made available, following the RLPO 1991 studio recording (EMI) and two live Philharmonia versions, at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival (Hyperion, as part of a five-disc set, reviewed in October 2007); and at Symphony Hall, Birmingham in January 2007 (download only, from the Philharmonia website, which gives the year as 2006). Though Mackerras’s Beethoven was always profoundly informed by period practice, this disc is of particular interest as it is the only one actually played on old instruments. The sound of early woodwind and brass comes across with exciting immediacy, and there’s the characterful sonority of a large string section playing without vibrato, as well as the lightness of articulation that period bows allow. In other words, there’s a slight spareness to the sound here that I find completely captivating, but listeners who are less enthusiastic about the sonority of period instruments in Beethoven will prefer one of Mackerras’s other recordings of the work. I know of no other conductor over the last couple of decades who gave such consistently illuminating account of Beethoven’s Ninth, but this one deserves a special place in any collection, even for collectors who already have one or more of the other Mackerras recordings.

The pacing of the first movement is superb, as is the way in which telling details are teased out but never over-emphasized. There’s a strong organic sense of the whole structure evolving in vast paragraphs, working towards a coda that is played with tremendous power. The exciting sound of period timpani is particularly notable in the Scherzo, as is the inspiring rhythmic energy of the conducting. In the slow movement this Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performance is slightly broader than any of the other Mackerras recordings, and it flows most eloquently, characterized above all by the chaste but highly expressive tone of the OAE’s strings: quite lovely, I think. In the finale, the gruff urgency of the cello and bass recitatives is particularly effective (in spite of a misplaced flute entry) and the vocal soloists are all fine; they sound comfortable and sing pretty well in tune (by no means always the case). The New Company is the choir and it’s marvellous. Above all, I think it’s the tremendous, inexorable sense of growth towards exultation at the close that’s so impressive about Mackerras’s approach here and the results are memorable.
Taken from the 1994 radio broadcast, the sound is generally good (there’s only the occasional tape blemish), with a convincing orchestral picture and a natural balance between instruments and voices in the finale. As well as notes, texts and translations, the booklet also includes a complete orchestra list (with some very distinguished period-instrument names). I am delighted to have the chance to hear this wonderful and joyous performance again: after almost 20 years its freshness, insight and jubilation is undimmed, earning this disc the warmest possible recommendation.

International Record Review, Nigel Simeone

 Listening to this superb performance from the 1994 Edinburgh Festival, you wonder how anyone could have been puzzled by, or have resisted, the composer’s metronome marks. The mighty first movement loses nothing of its power, its bleakness and menace, when taken up to speed- on the contrary, you hear the nightmarish textures, the displaced accents, and the offbeat anticipations of themes and phrases (a constant feature of the score) with thrilling clarity. The adagio, too: though Mackerras and his excellent strings may miss the hushed mezza voce of the opening, the movement works beautifully at Beethoven’s pace. Fine choral singing by the New Company, and Mackerras’s masterly control, make the finale as electrifying as only it can be.

The Times

 Signum has unearthed a live Beethoven: Symphony No.9 at the 1994 Edinburgh Festival with Sir Charles Mackerras and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in cracking form. Sir Charles was a pioneer of cleaning off the varnish to promote a lither Beethoven, with a spring in his step, in performances echoing those of the composer?s time.

Despite a fast pace, the slow movement is full of spiritual balm. The outer movements are elemental in proper revolutionary style; the finale?s found British soloists are excellent. Highly recommended.


The Mail on Sunday, David Mellor

 Mackerras?s 1994 Edinburgh festival performance with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is one of the most thrilling Beethoven interpretations I have ever heard. It bristles with revolutionary spirit: there?s no attempt to tame or otherwise civilise the sounds that Beethoven?s imagination is racing to conjure into being. You feel as if the conductor can barely keep the music on a leash, such is its volcanic energy ? and yet Mackerras?s way with this symphony is all part of a coherent vision. The OAE play like gods and demons, with pure string timbres one moment, raw woodwinds the next, and even the slow movement catches your breath, thanks to Mackerras?s ability to shed new light. The performance is crowned by a finale that clearly inspired everyone taking part.


Financial Times, Andrew Clark

 Although the legend says DDD and advises 24-bit, there’s a degree of hiss here, but nothing too worrying. Two re-mastering engineers are credited: Mike Hatch for Signum and the late Roger Beardsley for Music Preserved. BBC Radio 3 gets thanks, too, but whether what we have is from a BBC master, I know not.

The sound can be glaring in fortissimos, even though the OAE is a little recessed in the large space of the Usher Hall (this is a concert performance from the 1994 Edinburgh International Festival), and perspectives are apt to change at times. Nevertheless, this is really energised and exciting performance, full of details and bustle. Sir Charles Mackerras obtains a terrific response and much character from the ‘ authentic’ instrumentalists of the OAE, the musicians’ vividness bringing much that compels, with some brilliant climaxes and dancing rhythms. There is no lack of warm expression in the slow movement (Adagio and Andante contrasts well made) and the finale is joyous and lifearrifming, as it should be.

Hi-Fi Critic, Colin Anderson

  1. Allegro ma non troppo – L.V.Beethoven – 14.21
  2. Molto vivace – L.V.Beethoven – 13.27
  3. Adagio molto e cantabile – L.V.Beethoven – 13.17
  4. Presto – L.V.Beethoven – 22.43