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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, ‘Choral’ (1824)
Sally Matthews (soprano), Gerhild Romberger (contralto), Mark Padmore (tenor), Gerard Finley (bass), Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 20-23 February 2019, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, Germany
BR KLASSIK 900180 [71:58]

Bernard Haitink retired from the concert stage in September 2019 with two performances of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, one at the Proms in London and the other, his final performance, in Lucerne three days later. At roughly the time this review appears he will celebrate his 91st birthday, and was not far off 90 when he conducted this Beethoven’s Nine in Munich.

Music students such as myself, living in London in the 1970s, were lucky indeed. I can’t remember how many of Haitink’s concerts with the London Philharmonic Orchestra I attended, but there were quite a few. Two images are imprinted on my mind. One shows him holding up the score of the work he has just conducted. This is where your applause should be directed, he seems to be saying. The work? Britten’s Cello Symphony. (To my shame, I can’t remember who the soloist was.) And then there was his remarkable body language at the opening of Brahms’s Third Symphony, gestures that totally belied his reputation as a sober, undemonstrative conductor – as did, indeed, the response from the orchestra.

I wonder how many times Haitink conducted Beethoven’s Ninth during his long career. One imagines that this was the last time, though I haven’t been able to confirm that. It is a performance in which the work’s monumental quality is brought out alongside a remarkable transparency of texture. Tempi are chosen and maintained with care and good taste. The tenderness and drama of the music are both present, but without excess. Film of him during his final concerts show a conductor whose gestures are reduced to the bare minimum; he is often almost immobile. The iron grip of this and other performances is testament to the respect and attention he commanded from the orchestras with which he worked. I have encountered the view that Haitink chose what he wanted to take from the period performance movement, and this may indeed be the case. The qualities that make this a great performance, however, were present throughout his career. This is a performance as far from that of Zinman (Arte Nova), for example, as can be imagined.

To begin at the end, the finale follows the slow movement without a pause, and collectors will have heard more violent, more pressing readings of the opening of this movement. It isn’t slow, but Haitink doesn’t seem to want to make too much of it, and rightly so, one might think; it is, after all, the introduction to a long passage of music celebrating joy. In any event, it’s certainly weighty enough, with the main theme beautifully cantabile when it appears. Haitink does not hesitate to pull back the tempo slightly when the theme is finally given out by the whole orchestra. This finale is made up of disparate elements, but Haitink’s organic approach convinces us of the inevitability of the movement’s form. Gerald Finlay is quite splendid, his opening recitative and delivery of the main theme imposing and forceful. Mark Padmore is also very fine, positively heroic in the famous and near-impossible march passage. The alto soloist has little opportunity to shine in the Ninth, but what Gerhild Romberger does is splendid. Opinions may well differ in respect of Sally Matthews’ soprano. I find her singing squally and not always in the middle of the note. This is a pity because the solo quartet is otherwise very well integrated; as is almost always the case, however, the singers’ vibrato rather weakens the effect of their final, unaccompanied passage before the final run towards the close. The choir is superb in this movement, as is the orchestra throughout the work.

Haitink takes the slow movement at a flowing tempo. Of the recorded performances I know well, only Zinman takes less time than Haitink over this movement: 11:31 to Haitink’s 13:17. Masur (1974, Philips) in comparison, takes 15:02. In Haitink’s hands the movement emerges not as a profound meditation but rather as an interlude between weightier matters. Some interlude! I have always been fascinated by the repeated violin figurations in this movement. What are they for? Haitink gives them a fair amount of prominence. The Scherzo is superb, weighty and frequently fierce. Haitink respects all the repeats to be found in my Boosey and Hawkes miniature score. From the precisely articulated semiquavers that open the whole work to the first movement’s strong, final unison statement, the tension never lets up. Haitink has found, in my view, the ideal basic tempo for this movement, and his attention to details such as crescendo and decrescendo markings is certainly a major plus point of his reading. The central climax is fearsome in its power.

This live performance of the Ninth is presented in fine sound. The audience is silent and there is no applause. The booklet features articles in German and English about the work, the conductor, the choir and the orchestra. Schiller’s text is given in both languages. This is a big, impressive performance of the Ninth that will appeal to any listener who wants their Beethoven served up that way. Haitink’s admirers, it goes without saying, will not want to miss it.

William Hedley

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