Michael Tilson Thomas / San Francisco Symphony

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 "Choral" [2012 Recording]

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Michael Tilson Thomas' super audio recordings of Beethoven's symphonies with the San Francisco Symphony deserve attention for their superb musicianship and extraordinary sound quality. Recorded live in 2012, this performance of the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, "Choral," reflects mainstream tradition, insofar as the chorus and orchestra are of a conventional size and the instrumentation and playing style are modern, so don't expect the streamlined forces and rarefied tone colors of a period interpretation. Even so, Tilson Thomas' reading isn't hidebound by 20th century norms, and he takes pains to distinguish the inner parts and draw out clean timbres by keeping the textures transparent; furthermore, the strange voicings and odd passing dissonances that are sometimes concealed in over-homogenized renditions are easy to hear. Tempos are steady in the first movement, though a little too deliberate, and Tilson Thomas seldom indulges in rubato or dramatic changes, except at the important climaxes. Particularly praiseworthy are the exciting rhythmic exchanges in the Scherzo, which is maintained at a brisk clip and played with exceptional vigor and intensity. The Adagio is a delight of smooth, lyrical counterpoint, and Tilson Thomas' phrasing is eloquent and affecting, noticeably in the slight breaks at changes of key that suggest a catching of breath. The Finale is the highlight of this recording, thanks to the orchestra's passion, the singers' dramatic presentation, and the conductor's coherent pacing, which come together in a stirring Ode to Joy that feels cathartic and joyous. The reproduction is big and spacious, so the massed forces have full presence and an impressive dynamic range.

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