BEETHOVEN: Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 "Choral"
Mary Dunleavy, soprano; Elizabeth Bishop, mezzo-soprano; Stephen Gould, tenor, Alastair Miles, bass; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Donald Runnicles, cond.
Telarc CD-80603. TT: 68:46.

This Ninth has its distinctive strengths. In the first movement, Donald Runnicles's knack for enlivening the various contrapuntal strands without drawing attention away from the principal themes makes for an unusually active panorama. The bouncy Scherzo could be more firmly grounded, but the Adagio sings with Classical restraint, achieving real elegance in the second subject, flowing more swiftly as the variations become increasingly elaborate.

Against these specific assets, alas, lie some pervasive flaws. The Atlanta Symphony, like many second-rank orchestras, plays with the sort of commitment missing from the better-oiled accounts of the Big Five, and with better discipline and more profile than on their short-lived Shaw/Pro Arte account. The woodwinds are chipper and expressive, the Adagio's exposed horn solo has a lovely legato, and the tuttis, centering on forward, focused brasses, are vivid. But the string sections still sound understaffed, so that the ensemble sonority in the soft passages lacks character and impact. (This is less noticeable when listening on headphones.)

More worrisome are the occasional apparent lapses in Runnicles's orchestral control. Odd passages in the first two movements, for example, will pick up tempo for no apparent reason. To accelerate in the Scherzo at 3:31, but not in the repetitions at 5:34 and 11:55—this last a bit slapdash as well—suggests an accident rather than interpretive choice. In the Finale, the acceleration from the tenor solo into the big interlude at 11:28 isn't tight, and the chattering eighth-notes at 20:03 are a mess.

Those primarily interested in the solo singing had best look elsewhere. Both the tenor and the bass soloists of this bland quartet have voices that go white at the top, the mezzo is mostly inaudible, and the eighth notes in the variations push ahead randomly. The Atlanta chorus, however, maintains some of the old Shaw-era glory.

I'd like to hear Runnicles have another shot at this piece, five or ten years from now—preferably with a bigger orchestra.

S.F.V.(October 2003)