So how do you choose a Beethoven Ninth?main
Symphony No. 9 in D minor op. 125 (part 3)
There is so much going on in the ninth symphony that I’m tempted to confine this essay entirely to the opening movement and would certainly do so were it not for the fear that a focus on one movement might distort the whole. Beethoven did not intend the symphony to be broken into its component parts. The riddles that he plays on us in the hour of the Ninth can only be cracked once the symphony is consumed as a singular entity.
Approaches to the symphony diverge to an extreme degree, as shown by the variance of timings in the opening movement. Oscar Fried in the first known recording in 1929 (not on Idagio) performs the movement in 14 minutes. Wilhelm Furtwängler hovers around 18-19 minutes. His antipode Toscanini is done in under 13, quicker even than period instrument specialists. Herbert von Karajan, in around twenty recordings, is remarkably consistent at around the 15-minute mark. Otto Klemperer clocks in at 17. Apart from demonstrating that some conductors drive 50 percent faster than others, what we learn from the stop-watch is that Beethoven has created a symphonic expanse of almost limitless plasticity. For the complete symphony, Karl Böhm took 65 minutes in 1941 and 79 minutes in 1979, neither fully convincing.
The first movement opens with a tremor of strings, twenty seconds of nothing much happening until the whole orchestra chimes in. Beethoven did this before in his fourth symphony but to less revelatory effect. The British analyst Sir Donald Tovey calls it ‘a radiating point for all subsequent experiments for enlarging the time-scale of music. No later composer has escaped its influence.’ It appears to evoke a pastoral atmosphere, but with an air of mystery and something ominous about it. Beethoven uses intervals of As and Es without a third between them and packs more notes into a bar than ought responsibly to be there. Conductors who can get through the first half-minute without losing count heave a silent sigh of relief. With so much going on, Beethoven takes mischievous pleasure in throwing in a climax at unexpected points. Only when the symphony is over – if you can remember back that far – do we realise that he has completely subverted the Haydn rules of sonata form and is throwing open the symphony to every kind of expansion. What is he actually saying? Something like: ignore the rules, follow your fantasy. Here’s Marin Alsop’s take on the movement:
For my own reference listening, I often turn to Klaus Tennstedt to understand the rule-breaking nature of the work, or to Roger Norrington, who enters the symphony with conversational ease, invitating us to participate in the process. Tennstedt with his naive inspiration and Norrington with his intellectual reasoning are perfect antipodes in this piece.
The second movement gets several degress wilder. Nominally a scherzo, which suggests a light-hearted passage, almost a joke, the movement is twice as long as any scherzo Beethoven ever wrote and not funny at all. In fact, it’s quite alarming. There’s a racing, throbbing propulsion and a determined lack of guidance. Brisk drum beats heighten the unease. We won’t know where this is going until it’s all over. Otto Klemperer attacks the movement in the 1950s with a very heavy tread that conveys an irrefutable authority. Claudio Abbado, with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2000, maintains a gossamer delicacy without loss of tautness. Somewhere between these two lies what I am seeking.
Here’s Marin Alsop again:
The gentle release of an Adagio, when it finally comes around, is one of the most overwhelming consolations in the whole of musical culture. The movement is not slow, as Adagios are meant to be. Beethoven puts in a metronome mark of 60, which is fairly crisp, making it all the harder to achieve a combination of sentiment and momentum. The young Sergiu Celibidache achieves a convincing muscularity, while George Szell favours hand-tailored elegance in the mind games that Beethoven is playing, giving us variations on two incomplete themes, and interleaving them. One suspects he is having an interlude of private fun before hitting us with the great apotheosis.
I find it pointless to analyse the finale in words. Too many have been splashed on it already without adding to our insight. When I am asked for a listening guide, I tend to direct people towards the best set of singers – for instance, Karajan’s 1950s Vienna quartet of Lisa della Casa (Soprano), Hilde Rössel-Majdan (Alto), Waldemar Kmentt (Tenor) and Otto Edelmann (Bass); or Andris Nelsons in 2019 with Camilla Nylund, Georg Zeppenfeld, Gerhild Romberger and the utterly transcendent tenor Klaus Florian Vogt.
But that’s a cop-out on my part since the finale, like the rest of the symphony, is greater than the sum of its vocal performers. True, a botched bass entry at Oh, Freunde! can crash the entire concert, but we require more than a celestial set of soloists to create a milestone performance.
I am about to give a longlist of what I consider to be the defining accounts on record. There is too little space left in this post to whittle them down to a shortlist, so I shall have to leave you hanging for a few days until I whittle down a set of ultimate indispensables.
The longlist goes something like this:
Arturo Toscanini/NBC 1939, 1952; La Scala, 1946
Kazuo Yamada, 1942
Hans Schmidt Isserstedt, 1951 (with Birgit Nilsson), Vienna 1956
Erich Kleiber, Vienna 1952
Bruno Walter, Vienna 1955, New York 1959
Otto Klemperer, Amsterdam 1956, London 1957
Jascha Horenstein, Vienna 1956
Ferenc Fricsay, Berlin 1957
Celibidache, Turin 1958, Munich 1999
Pierre Monteux, Boston 1958
Charles Munch, Boston 1958
Ernest Ansermet 1959 (with Joan Sutherland)
René Leibowitz, London 1961
George Szell, Cleveland 1961
Fritz Reiner, Chicago 1961,
Leonard Bernstein, NY 1964, Vienna 1979
Leopold Stokowski, London 1969
Erich Leinsdorf, Boston (1969, BMG)
George Solti, Chicago 1972, 1994
Kurt Masur, Leipzig 1975, New York 1999
Rafael Kubelik, Munich 1975, 1982
Lorin Maazel, Cleveland 1979
Claudio Abbado, Vienna 1987, Berlin 1996
Roger Norrington, London 1987,
Roy Goodman/Hanover Band, London 1988
Christopher Hogwood, London 1989
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, 1991
Charles Mackerras, Liverpool 1991
Riccardo Muti, Philadelphia 1992
Klaus Tennstedt, London 1992
John Eliot Gardiner and L’orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, 1994
Frans Brüggen, 1993
Bernard Hatink, Amsterdam 1994, London 2006
David Zinman, Zurich 1998
Daniel Barenboim Berlin 1999
Simon Rattle, Vienna 2002, Berlin 2016
Herbert Blomstedt, Dresden 2003
Mariss Jansons, Munich 2007
Mikhail Pletnev, Moscow 2007
Franz Welser-Möst, Cleveland 2007
Thomas Dausgard, Stockholm 2009
Philippe Herrweghe, Paris 2011
Riccardo Chailly, Leipzig 2011
Christian Thielemann, Vienna 2011
Philippe Jordan, Vienna 2017
Andris Nelsons, Vienna 2018
Adam Fischer, Copenhagen 2019
Masaki Suzuki, Tokyo 2019
Bernard Haitink, Munich 2019
Who have I forgotten? Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, of course, the mainstream conductors of the central Austro-German tradition in the 20th century. Each man left up to 20 recordings of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.
I shall have to sort them out in the next post before I can get to a shortlist.