Some Joy for the New Decade

As the decade draws to a close, many of us choose to gather with people we love so that together we can celebrate and give thanks for our blessings. In that spirit, I offer a new hybrid SACD/Download of a perennial favorite, Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor. Op. 125 “Choral” (BIS 2451), whose memorable finale celebrates the joy of oneness with humanity and the divine.

Although Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan have previously recorded Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, he is not a conductor one commonly associates with Beethoven’s music–not that there is anything common about this performance, on period-instrument forces usually heard in the music of Bach, paying particular attention to clarity of line. Auditioned in its native format of 24/96, this recording finds Suzuki’s 53-piece orchestra playing with impressive weight and fullness but with no trace of romantic excess. Suzuki’s ear for color, detail, and movement delivers a rousing, vital performance whose clarity of vision has the power to seize listeners from the start.

After countless recordings with huge choruses, it’s refreshing to discover how full and clean a 30-person chorus–eight sopranos, eight altos, 7 tenors, and 7 basses–can sound in this music. Occasionally, the tenors seem to be pushing their limits, but those moments quickly cede to the glorious, big-boned voices of soloists Ann-Helen Moen, Marianne Beate Kielland, Neal Davies, and Allan Clayton. Despite a couple of obvious errors–Clayton's indulgence in an unfortunate downward portamento at a point in his opening declamation; Moen’s decision to lighten a bit too soon at the end of the final quartet–this group can stand with the best.

Suzuki's Beethoven 9 does not seem to be on YouTube, but I did find its antithesis: this recent live big-boned performance from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Muti.

You may occasionally miss the grandeur that Furtwängler, Karajan, Walter, and others brought to Beethoven, but the precision, fleetness, verve, and sheer beauty of Suzuki’s performance are thrilling. It is also closer than the usual fare to what Beethoven would have heard in his time–if he had been able to hear anything.

To bid farewell to the old and create space for the new, I can think of no finer music–unless your taste turns more toward Bach, in which case I can recommend two other, streamable performances: From Suzuki and his forces, the solo Cantata BWV 51, “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!” (Praise God in all Lands) with the wonderful soprano Carolyn Sampson. For something less ecclesiastic, here's Sampson again: her joyful performance of the solo Wedding Cantata, BWV 202, “Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten” (Begone now, gloomy shadows) with Freiburger Barockorchester conducted by Petra Müllejans.

Happy New Year, everyone.

COMMENTS
jimtavegia's picture

I own a few copies of the Symphonies, even one complete set on cassette no less, but unless you have heard this performed in person I am not sure one can fully appreciate the depth of this work or what Beethoven when through to write it.

One of my favorite movies is "Copying Beethoven", whether accurate or not, does give one a glimpse of Beethoven the man by Ed Harris, and the torment V went through in his end years. Can there be anything worse, other then death itself, than to be a music lover and great composer then to lose your hearing and still try and compose and conduct?

I often think about all the technology available to us today that if around in Beethoven's day what we could truly have been able to enjoy, and we tend to split hairs over much of it.

Also best in the new year and thanks for all the great new music tips.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

May the new decade bring you health and peace.

jason

jimtavegia's picture

It was an older studio recording session and even though the YouTube audio was MP3, to see him play was remarkable and you could easily get a sense of respect he felt for the orchestra and returned to him.

Oh I wish I had played much less baseball and worked harder at the piano. I get much joy from watching a young person excel at an instrument and why I enjoy recording our local school concerts to give the kids a chance to hear themselves play and motivate them to keep working.

I also watched Alice Sara Ott playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 3 and she is an amazing artist She is such a remarkable person and her current personal heath issues tell us why we must pursue what we love with great vigor and waste no time.

https://www.pizzicato.lu/pianist-alice-sara-ott-diagnosed-with-multiple-sclerosis/

volvic's picture

After many years I finally gave up looking for Vladimir Perlemuter’s Vox label Mozart piano sonatas on vinyl, and bought it on CD. I have been transfixed with his virtuosity and have been watching him non-stop on YouTube. I too wish I hadn’t played as much baseball and gone to more piano lessons, I now try and listen to these masters as often as I can, knowing how much great music there is and so little time. Having a six year old doesn’t help either. Trying with my son now but he seems to prefer playing soccer to piano lessons and listening to hip hop. History repeats itself. Hopefully some of the music I play rubs off on him and he quickly forgets that god-awful music he listens to when he sneaks my iPad out.

jimtavegia's picture

I just ordered two more of her CDs yesterday.

dial's picture

After reading, I got it. Excellent recording & performance.

Charles E Flynn's picture

Suzuki Sucks in Beethoven’s Ninth

Reviewed by David Hurwitz. Artistic Quality 1 / Sound Quality 9.

https://www.classicstoday.com/review/suzuki-sucks-in-beethovens-ninth

Sound samples (11 of them) at
https://bis.se/conductors/suzuki-masaaki/beethoven-symphony-no-9

Studio quality download available at eClassical.com.

Anton's picture

Perhaps after hearing the same piece of music for the 32,779th (that's how many versions Discogs lists) time, Mr. Hurwitz has finally heard it enough?

Same goes for Abbey Road, but Beethoven's Ninth has been around since 1824.

I shudder to think how much freaking Beethoven's Ninth we will have to endure in 2024.

Audiophiles do seem to have an infinite capacity for repetition.

To break this good/bad tie between reviewers, I will go with: It's Beethoven's Ninth, haven't we heard it enough yet? Let's move on.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The link to the download is embedded in the review, but I was not aware that sound clips were also available. Thank you for that.

As for the strong difference in opinion, after reading David Hurwitz's review, methinks his sound system might be due for a major upgrade.

Charles E Flynn's picture

You are welcome.

I wonder how much one of the postage stamp sized ads costs at ClassicsToday.com. It would be amusing to see a Stereophile ad there, pitched at reviewers. "Avoid the embarrassment of reviews affected by bad audio gear. Start reading today!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

You may be appalled to learn that many artists and labels still distribute mp3 to critics, and that some critics prefer them because they're easy to play and download fast. Those critics have no idea what hi-resolution is all about, and want to keep things simple. Yet they review performances and pass judgment on the sound.

Some record company executives also refuse to release high-resolution files to critics, even though those files are streamable and downloadable to the general public. I have been waging a battle on this with labels for years. The pipeline to several major labels remains impeded at this time due to corporate mucking up on higher levels, sometimes in Europe. It's just crazy.

I'm up early to feed one of our dogs, Leo Gleesun, who had 10 teeth pulled on the 31st. He just gobbled up his scrambled eggs and three pills hidden in peanut butter. Now it's time to go back to bed.

Anyone looking for a good New Year's Day romance? See Little Women. Then we can trade private notes about when you cried and I cried. As for good New Year's Day music, now's a good time to stop discussing reviews of music you haven't auditioned in hi-rez, and download this wonderful Beethoven 9.

Happy New Year.

jason

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Some great actresses in the leading roles ...... Soundtrack by Oscar winning Alexandre Desplat ....... I'm planning to see the movie :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Listen to 'The Shape of Water', Alexandre Desplat Oscar winning original motion picture soundtrack :-) ........

Charles E Flynn's picture

Jason,

I am appalled that any reviewer of music recordings would use mp3 files for anything other than listening to online sound samples to get a first impression. I hope we do not read about film reviewers watching films on their cellphones.

May the new year bring you success with your battle with the record labels, and may your dog make a full and quick recovery. At least he gets the benefits of 21st century veterinary science.

Happy New Year to all!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

If you want to see great performances by Saoirse Ronan and another great performer Margot Robbie, see the movie 'Mary, Queen of Scots' ....... Soundtrack by Max Richter :-) ........

Anton's picture

That’s like saying someone without a foot fetish just hasn’t met the perfect shoe yet.

Maybe we should criticize his hearing frequency response, too!

Perhaps his education is lacking?

Jim Austin's picture

Not that it matters. But a quick sampling of reviews available on the web suggests that the Suzuki 9 is getting strong reviews overall.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Charles E Flynn's picture

Thank you. Before today, I had seen only the reviews at ClassicsToday.com and Stereophile.com.

From https://theclassicreview.com/album-reviews/review-beethoven-symphony-no-9-masaaki-suzuki/ :

This is an exceptional release, with highly informative and interesting notes by Beethoven scholar Ernst Herttrich. The recording is everything we expect from BIS, and Bach Collegium Japan and their conductor Masaaki Suzuki are proving to be first-rate performers of an increasingly wide range of music. No one recording can capture every aspect of Beethoven’s magnum opus, but this one comes close and belongs in the library of every Beethoven lover.

From https://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/event/article-7635127/Bach-Collegium-Japan-album-review-performance-sound-thrillingly-vivid.html :

This is one of the finest Ninths I have heard for a long time, and certainly the best original instrument recording. Both the performance and the sound are thrillingly vivid, and really not to be missed.

miguelito's picture

Just that comment alone discredits that review in my book.

Timbo in Oz's picture

He is, of course, entitled to his opinion, but I suggest we can ignore it.

I've been doing so for a good while, and it's easy.

jimtavegia's picture

is better than no Beethoven at all. When I can't do ( or play) something I find it hard to criticize others who can and make their best effort. Critics.

I started recording over 12 years ago as I quickly found out how hard it is to do and do well. The benefit for me was to be less critical knowing how hard getting a great recording is. The benefit was the local public schools and colleges around me who I recorded for (for free), and my recording education. I helped students get better at their craft.

To get better you must record and listen to your performance and then make adjustments in your efforts. My singing and piano playing are a case in point. I practice for at least an hour a day, even at 72. If you have a child or grandchild who plays or sings help them find a way to record their practicing.

I have some early 1940's recordings, professionally done I might add, from old radio broadcasts and realized that there was no reason for the Nat King Cole trio so sound so bad when playing at the Torcordaro Club. Clearly some engineers could hear that what they were capturing was not the same as what the patrons were hearing. Even though mic quality was not great, more on each of the players would have been better. Keep comparing live to what you are hearing, and what you are capturing.

You might be surprised at what a good recording you could make with some current, affordable mics, an affordable mixer from Yamaha or Mackie and even a cassette deck. You don't need to spend crazy money for practice.

We don't have this happening much anymore. What we have now is all the studio trickery of fixing what performers can't do well. Not quite truth in performing is it?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

There has been "studio trickery" ever since the introduction of magnetic tape. The digital edits are just harder to hear. And before recordings were edited, there were multiple takes. Which doesn't account for the fact that auto-pitch correction is a fairly recent phenomenon.

jimtavegia's picture

I have always considered touring musicians and those who do concerts to be the best musicians as there are no do-overs or tricks, but I do call lip-syncing a bad thing, like at the Grammy's a few years back.

I just have great respect for musicians who play clubs or symphonies. To do it "without a net" takes talent. I am still amazed at Tony Bennett's Live at Carnegie Hall concert, and other who have played there to be on the top of their game.

Ortofan's picture

... the Beethoven 9th, performed in Berlin 30 years ago, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, less than a year before his passing:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IInG5nY_wrU

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Looking forward to JVS' CES 2020 report :-) .......

Charles E Flynn's picture

https://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/listPage.jsp?list_id=5526 (25 recordings)

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

As 25 recordings that are likely to appeal to a wide audience and thus make money for arkivmusic.com, yes; as a true Best of 2019, no way. Only a few of these deserve inclusion on a Best of the Year list.

Having just conducted a search, I discover that two are on the NY Times top 25 list, which includes a large number of recordings that I never had time to audition. The same two are on the WQXR top 25 list (one of which I reviewed for the print magazine), and one is on the Chicago Tribune best list that includes four recordings that I reviewed (some for print only). Oh, NPR's best list includes three recordings I reviewed - two of those recording reviews appeared either on this site or in the print magazine, and the third appeared on Classical Voice North America.

miguelito's picture

I own many versions of the Beethoven symphonies. This one is absolutely stunning. Precision, beauty and color are amazing. The sound is also the best in my opinion, by a long shot. Thank you Jason for pointing us in this direction.

FLighT's picture

Hello,long time Stereophile subscriber returning after a long hiatus of 12 years away from the hobby (having started with the earliest issues with J. Gordon Holt back in the 70's if memory serves)during which I spent more time in the Kimmel Center concert hall and less listening to reproduced music. I returned with HP's in early 2016 and finally added a bona fide 2 channel rig to my living room last year. For those interested I suggest checking out a DVD movie entitled "Eroica" about that symphonies first performance.

MCK22's picture

This is so late it's probably irrelevant, but for the record, not every record reviewer agrees with the concept of original instrument performance, especially older critics who grew up on the late romantic orchestral style. (Which some would say is anachronistic for anything written before the mid-19th C.) Nor do they necessarily agree with every other record reviewer, for example this is an excerpt from Fanfare review of this disc:

"This marvelous performance is reproduced in superb, lifelike sound, full of impact but without any sense of artificial enhancement. Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan have given us an historically informed recording of the Beethoven Ninth that conveys the drama, humanity, and transformative release of this incomparable work."

– Fanfare

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