Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Symphony No. 9 in d minor, op.125, “Choral” [58:39]
Benjamin Zander discusses Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
Rebecca Evans (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Derek Welton (bass-baritone)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Zander
rec. Watford Colosseum, UK, 2017 BRATTLE MEDIA 610877733781 [3 CDs: 218:35]
This is a fascinating and in many ways epoch-making
issue. Benjamin Zander is not only a fine conductor – he is at
present principal conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra –
but also a true scholar; someone who not only feels deeply
where music is concerned, but thinks deeply too, something
that far from all conductors do.
The question of the metronome tempo markings in Beethoven’s scores (though he actually inserted metronome marks in his scores for only a relatively short period of time) is one that has occupied musicians and musicologists for many years. The argument often went “Beethoven’s metronome marks are so much faster than the way I think his music should be played; therefore there must have been something wrong with his metronome” – a clearly somewhat self-serving case. Over the past half century, numerous musicians have decided to give the markings a chance and have often surprised listeners with how convincing this can be.
I would certainly recommend listening to Zander’s detailed discussion before listening to his interpretation (all two and a half hours’ worth!). He tackles the whole issue in an engaging and largely rigorous way, then explains in detail how he has applied it to the Ninth Symphony. He is often politely but firmly critical of the interpretations of great conductors such as Furtwängler, Karajan, Bernstein and others; but the nice thing is that he is equally critical of his own earlier readings of Beethoven’s works!
There are so many aspects of this performance that are surprising, some will say ‘shocking’. And passages that some will find revelatory and others simply bizarre. But nothing is done for effect, everything is backed up by Zander’s impressive blend of scholarship and musicianship. Perhaps the most extraordinary moment of all comes in the finale, as the chorus arrives at that moment of great power – “Und der Cherub steht vor Gott” – and the mind-blowing harmonic shift that takes place under the final repetition of ‘Gott’. Normally, that F major chord is sustained fortissimo; but Zander’s research has found that Beethoven had added a diminuendo to this chord. The effect is unquestionably startling and rather wonderful.
The ineffable slow movement is a particularly interesting case; it has two main themes, and each occupies its own tempo, the first Adagio – very slow – and the second Andante moderato, meaning rather quicker. The implication of those verbal descriptions is that the second theme will be more flowing, yet its metronome mark in the score is 63 crotchets to the minute, while the Adagio’s is just 60 – hardly any difference at all. It transpires that this was a copyist’s error; he mistook the page number – 63 – for the metronome mark, and that’s what was entered into the printed score (and still persists in most scores today!). We shall never know exactly what Beethoven intended, but Zander’s choice of a subtly more flowing tempo seems perfect.
Then there’s the scurrying Scherzo, with its more relaxed trio. But is it more relaxed? This is far too complex to go into in detail here; but Zander suggests that the trio really should go much quicker than it is usually played, and his argument is convincing. Mind you, there are practical problems; there is a famously finger-twisting oboe solo here, which at this tempo becomes well-nigh unplayable. The Philharmonia’s brilliant principal oboe, Gordon Hunt, just about manages it, but only by the skin of his teeth!
There are so many other novelties and things to make you sit up and take notice – who knew that Beethoven had a piano at that first performance? It presumably fulfilled some sort of continuo function; but Zander feels that the piano’s bass notes can bolster the cellos and basses in that terrifying storm that is the recapitulation of the first movement’s main theme. You won’t be able to hear it separately, but it’s there in the midst of the torrent of sound.
So, whether one ‘agrees’ with Zander’s interpretation or not, this issue is a vitally important addition to the Beethoven discography, and indeed to Beethoven studies generally. Yes, there are places where I feel the innovations don’t really work; but the important thing is that Zander has clearly convinced his orchestra, choir and soloists that the changes are worth implementing. The singing and playing is magnificently passionate and imaginative, and therefore 100% worth hearing.
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