La Chambre Philharmonique

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

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Even though the intentions of early music ensembles and their directors are often admirable, the results of their explorations into period practice may not always be satisfactory. Certainly, the original instruments group La Chambre Philharmonique has the ability to play idiomatically and with virtuosity, and leader Emmanuel Krivine earnestly strives for a fresh take on Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, "Choral." But the distinctive Classical-era woodwind timbres and delicate tones of the strings are quite familiar now to many listeners, and the effect of a reduced chamber orchestra playing this gargantuan masterpiece seems wasted, especially when nothing new in expression is offered. This symphony is central to the Romantic canon, and as such, it has through tradition acquired an orchestral sound that for most listeners must be powerful and must be massive enough to match the cosmic import of Friedrich von Schiller's "An die Freude" and Beethoven's agonized and ecstatic music. Some fans of historically informed performances would argue that adhering to Romantic tradition is just so much lazy musicianship, and that Beethoven's music should be stripped of the accretions of post-Romantic excess and modern acquiescence to the same. That may be, but when the orchestra is as stripped down and exposed as La Chambre Philharmonique is in this live performance, its timbres seem squeaky, thin, anemic, and almost comically inadequate to the task at hand. Perhaps it is partly a problem of balance, for Krivine tends to emphasize lines assigned to the oboes and bassoons, so they tend to stick out of the orchestral blend a bit too much. Furthermore, his strings play with an ethereal tone that is senza vibrato throughout, and some of their most passionate melodies seem bloodless and unduly chaste. However, the effort to re-create a period style for the Finale is disastrous, for despite the best possible presentation by the vocal soloists and the choir, the orchestral sound is too rarefied and at times too insipid to carry Schiller's stirring text or Beethoven's glorious music, despite a good effort whenever the popular theme appears. Because listeners want a Ninth that works from beginning to end, this recording will likely prove unsatisfactory to many because a few exciting passages do not a great performance make.

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