About this Recording
8.110929 - BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 (Fried) (1929)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 9

“The instrumental parts are among the greatest I know, but when the human voice comes in I am at a loss to grasp the meaning. I find only isolated parts excellent, but, when this is the case with a great master, the blame most probably lies in ourselves as listeners and performers.” Mendelssohn’s confusion in the face Beethoven’s most ambitious symphony still has its sympathisers. Three instrumental movements are, by turns, apocalyptic, playful and serene and then there is the finale, a panoramic effusion that sings, marches, prays and ultimately detonates an explosion of joy. Who at the time could possibly have anticipated such untamed musical gestures? Beethoven had originally planned to set Schiller’s An die Freude as early as 1793 though by 1822 his notebook carried the vital promise of “a German symphony, either with variations (introducing the choir) or without.” The first performance in May 1824 was seriously flawed but triumphant. The Scherzo prompted instantaneous shouts of delight, so many in fact that the performance drew to a temporary halt. Being totally deaf, Beethoven just carried on conducting - that was until someone told him what was happening and he turned to face an ovation that he could see but could not hear.

Even today, a good performance of Beethoven Nine can amount almost to a profound religious experience. The Gramophone catalogue is crammed with CD versions of the, Choral, many of which emanate from a period when making records was still a special event. The 1920s, 1930s and 1940s witnessed recorded performances of the Choral by the likes of Toscanini, Furtwängler, Mengelberg, Stokowski, Weingartner and Walter, not all of which were actually released at the time. If these names strike you merely as references buried in history books let me affirm that each conductor made a highly personalised statement of what remains to this day the most devastating symphony in the repertory.

Although Oscar Fried’s reputation as a conductor was not quite the equal of, say, Mengelberg’s or

Furtwängler’s (not without some reason), he was still an important musical figure. He was born on 10th August 1871 into a family of Jewish merchants and made something of a name for himself as a rebel, playing violin and horn at local events and even working as a circus kennel master. A short-lived flirtation with painting gave way to lessons with Humperdinck, original compositions that were admired by Hermann Levi (Parsifal’s first conductor), more intensive creative work and a productive friendship with Gustav Mahler. Fried was first conductor of the Blüthner Orchestra (1908-1914) and gave the Russian première of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, a work that he also set down on disc for the first time in recorded history (1924). Indeed, it was the first ever recording of a Mahler symphony, but when the Nazis came to power Fried was obliged to leave Germany. He ended his days in the Soviet Union where he had been engaged by both the Tiflis Opera and the Moscow All-Union Radio Orchestra. He died in Moscow on 5th July 1941.

The Oscar Fried discography includes Beethoven’s Second, Third and Ninth Symphonies, Brahms’s First Symphony, Wagner’s A Faust Overture, Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites and the Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns (featuring violinist Josef Wolfsthal). There are also laudable versions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Liszt’s Les Préludes and, perhaps most impressive of all, a formidable statement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, recorded with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in 1937 and featuring what is perhaps the most terrifying reading of the Witches’ Sabbath on record.

Listeners schooled in historic recordings will probably expect Fried’s Choral Symphony to employ various old-school ‘tricks of the trade’ such as expressive slides and wide tempo fluctuations. If so, then this particular performance may well confound their expectations. Indeed, it is among the most classically proportioned of early Chorals, one that more resembles a modem ‘objective’ performance than the ‘subjective’ readings of Walter or Furtwängler. Toscanini might be seen as the nearest point of reference, except that the Latin Maestro’s Beethoven exhibits rather more temperament than Fried’s - at least as recorded.

Fried’s focused viewpoint is evident right from the opening bars. For example, the pulsing 3/4 semiquavers that set the movement in motion should immediately establish the basic rhythm, which is what they do here (especially from the cellos). The first movement is played at a brisk, albeit fairly strict tempo, although Fried does speed marginally towards the first full tutti passage and there is a marked slowing down at around 7:02, where staccato bassoons start their ascent. One can sense from the rushing demisemiquaver exchanges between first and second violins at 3:27 that Fried divided his two violin desks to the left and right of the rostrum (the first desk is balanced far closer to the microphone than the second). This of course was standard practice for most conductors and orchestras of the period. Strong-arm basses march towards central development but at around 7:40 the brass and strings fall a little out of synch, while there is a fine swell to the big central climax (in spite of the recording’s limitation). From around 11:02 it becomes obvious that Fried’s control over the orchestra was not quite as all-embracing as it might have been.

The Scherzo is more mercurial than most, with keen string staccatos and plenty of rhythmic bounce. Fried’s sudden accelerando just before the trio section (i.e. at 3:28) momentarily suggests that be might be anticipating such present-day maestros as David Zinman and Benjamin Zander by playing a very fast trio. But the tempo soon relaxes again and we are back on a traditional course (though note the excited crescendo of staccato cellos and violas at 6:00). After a nicely phrased if hardly memorable Adagio molto e cantabile slow movement Fried cues a vigorous finale. The opening Presto is played with bracing address and the recitatives for lower strings (basses and cellos) that follow are kept more or less in tempo, which is precisely what Beethoven asks for. When the Presto returns and the bass enters with O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! , note the stylistic disparity between Wilhelm Guttman’s essentially lyrical singing and the almost martial responses of the Bruno Kittel Choir (at 7:24, with the word Freude!). Kittel’s choir gives a keen, even zealous account of their famous ‘anthem’ holding the spirit of exaltation for the remainder of the movement.

Fried’s singers are all first-rate and include the soprano Lotte Leonard, one the most popular German concert performers of the period. Some consider that the Berlin State Opera Orchestra was the city’s prime site for quality orchestral playing (the wind section was particularly fine) though in later years the Philharmonic rather stole its thunder - and not a few of its players. Bruno Kittel’s choir was, again, one of the finest in the land. They also appear on a rather more famous Choral, one that Furtwängler conducted with the Philharmonic in 1942 and they blot their copybook somewhat with a recording of Mozart’s Requiem where the Nazified texts dispensed with any Jewish biblical names. Happily, Fried’s Berlin work predates such misdemeanours and serves to chronicle an important phase in the city’s start-studded pre-war musical life.

Rob Cowan

The hundredth anniversary of Beethoven’s death coincided with the dramatic improvement in sound recording brought about by the electrical process. A large-scale edition of Beethoven’s works was launched by English Columbia, including a complete set of the Symphonies. At the same time, the German Grammophon label (exported as Polydor) commenced its own series of the Beethoven Symphonies. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra shared the recordings, conducted by Hans Pfitzner, Richard Strauss, Oscar Fried and Erich Kleiber. This series, however, was not completed in time for the centennial and, in fact, was not completed until 1933, with Symphony No. 8. Naxos is reissuing the complete set.

Large choirs were particularly difficult to record in the early days of electrical recording, and even though Polydor’s engineers kept the levels relatively low, a certain amount of distortion is present during louder passages in the fourth movement.

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