A few weeks back I wrote about The Minnesota Orchestra’s goodwill tour of Cuba – the musicians gave two concerts in Havana and participated in other educational programs while on the tour. Learning of that excursion was my first exposure to the organization. The Orchestra has gained some acclaim for its recordings – two are especially notable. Just last year they won a Grammy for a recording of two Sibelius symphonies, and prior to that they had been nominated for others, including for their recording of Beethoven’s 9th.
A little mouse told my father-in-law that a great b-day gift for me would be The Minnesota Orchestra’s recording of Beethoven’s 9th. Long my favorite piece of music (period), I have only ever owned a single recording of Beethoven’s masterpiece; I couldn’t possibly say how many times I’ve listened to it over the years. The piece is, to my mind, the height of human musical achievement.
As I sit now, having arrived at the fourth movement, “Chorale,” I’m very impressed with the clarity and beauty of this recording. The vocals – The Minnesota Chorale with acclaimed soloists soprano Helena Juntunen, mezzo Katarina Karneus, tenor Daniel Norman and bass Neal Davies – are astonishingly clear and powerful. The combination of vocals and the symphonic form are the primary reason I find the piece to be so noteworthy and magnificent, though the themes and slow build of the first and second movements, the surprising airiness of the third and the power of the fourth altogether make it a treat – obviously I’m not alone in my admiration of this piece.
Beethoven, prior to composing the Ninth, had long been enamored of Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy and desirous of setting it to music. How could one not be? In translation from the original German, the most oft-repeated stanza of the poem stunningly heralds an entry into the presence of the Most High:
Joy, exquisite divine spark
Daughter from Elysium;
Drunk with fire, we enter,
O divine one, your sanctuary!
By 1822, Beethoven fills those words up. The music, not content to stand in for the experience of entering the presence of the Most High, itself becomes the Deity. The transcendent joy enabled by the combination of the vocals and music by the end of the work leaves me breathless and bawling every single time.
Thanks for reading.