All 9 Beethoven symphonies in a day: First review

All 9 Beethoven symphonies in a day: First review


norman lebrecht

June 27, 2022

Jonathan Sutherland sat through all nine Beethoven symphonies yesterday in Novi Sad, Serbia. Here’s his review for

There were as many violently divergent opinions on this site as to the desirability of performing all Beethoven’s symphonies in one day as the irascible composer’s penchant for insatiable sforzandi.

Yesterday’s herculean marathon performed by German conductor Gabriel Feltz with the Belgrade and Dortmund Philharmonic orchestras in the delightful Serbian city of Novi Sad put paid to any niggardly objections or carping scepticism. This was definitely not a publicity stunt nor crude test of athletic stamina but rather the opportunity to follow the linear and creative progression of one the world’s greatest symphonists over a period of 24 of his most productive years. There was also the unique opportunity to understand a conductor’s interpretative and artistic conception of Beethoven’s symphonies in their totality.

Most Beethoven scholars agree that there was never a single conductor who mastered all nine symphonies with equal perspicacity or definitive interpretative originality. In terms of tempi alone, the Furtwängler/Toscanini divergence is so great that half-hours rather than minutes are involved. Apart from the above, Klemperer, Walter, Böhm, Kleiber, Karajan, Tennstedt and Bernstein all had their respective zeniths but none could be described as the one Lord of the Beethoven symphonic Rings.

Conducting all nine symphonies from memory, Berlin-born Gabriel Feltz displayed an easy affinity for the Haydn-like lightness of the 1st and 2nd but was definitely prepared to unleash the full demonic orchestral forces in the 3rd, 5th and 9th.

The underrated 4th and quirky 8th were impressive in their rhythmic drive. The ornithological references in the 6th avoided being too kitsch. Feltz’s overall tempi tended to be on the fast side, which sounded fresh and virile in most cases but led to a Zander-esque breakneck reading of the 7th which turned the Allegretto into an almost metronomic, pacey pulsation and the final allegro con brio movement into a hurdy-gurdy of frenetic if not manic semiquavers.

Symphonies 1-8 were played in alternating orchestra sets of two over a time period from 10.00-19.00 in the new 400 seat Novi Sad City Concert Hall. While having agreeable sight-lines, it unfortunately has rather dry and sub-resonant acoustics. Colleagues in Dortmund report that the performances there the previous weekend were acoustically much more satisfactory. It was also interesting to compare the sound of the two orchestras which have been moulded by mutual GMD Feltz’s vision of sound and colour.

There is no doubt the creamy string sound of the Belgrade high strings is superior to that of Dortmund which tended to be slightly brittle, despite an excellent double bass section. Conversely the Dortmund winds were generally more dulcet and more attentive to the dynamic markings. Brass in both orchestras were excellent, particularly the raspy Dortmund trombones in the 5th. It seemed most of the audience made a selection of which symphonies they preferred, with not everyone sitting through the complete cycle which to this listener, was the whole point of participating in such a marathon. Somewhat surprisingly, the 2nd, 3rd and 6th received the most applause, although the 5th was played by the Dortmund orchestra with impressive power and laser-crisp rhythmic precision.

The 9th Symphony was an entirely different story and more like an event in its own right.

The two orchestras, plus the Slovak Philharmonic Choir and soloists made an extraordinary visual impact on the enormous purpose-built stage, not to mention generating an enormous sound which was pristinely amplified by state-of-the-art miking and speakers.
Every graduation from pianissimo to fortissimo was clearly distinguishable, which is not always the case with outdoor amplification.
The performance was held in the grounds of the spectacular Petrovaradin fortress overlooking the Danube. This was a free concert which attracted roughly seven thousand attendees, many of whom were clearly not regular classical music concert goers.
Petrovaradin is after all, a venue more famous for its Glastonbury-like rock-concert Exit Festival than the lofty sounds of bassoons and double-basses playing Beethoven.

Whilst the audiences in all previous indoor symphonies were scrupulously attentive, consistently quiet and surprisingly cough-less, most of the evening crowd seemed to have come for the overall experience. There was applause not only between movements but also after the fermata immediately proceeding the Turkish March. Such a thing would never happen in Vienna or Berlin, but before purists start with superior tutt-tutting, the event brought many people to a classical concert in a country which has a somewhat limited history in this genre of music,

Judging by the enthusiasm with which this massive concert was received, there were no small number of converts to classical music as a result.

Gabriel Feltz’s ambitious and expensive project was many years in the making, and was nearly nipped in the bud firstly by the Covid pandemic then the sudden death of one of its leading advocates, the much-loved Director of the Belgrade Philharmonic, Ivan Tasovac. Good German determination and a bit of Slavic serendipity prevailed, and with the added financial support of the EU through the designation of Novi Sad as European Capital of Culture for 2022, this extremely rare event was finally able to take place.
Realisation of the concept had historical significance, and not just for the Balkans.

Previous Beethoven Symphony Marathons only occurred in London in 1988 when Lorin Maazel conducted three major London orchestras and later in Krakow Poland in 2016 when the Capella Cracoviensis orchestra and was directed by 5 different conductors.
Marathons may have their detractors, but to make a culinary comparison, whilst the proof of the pudding may be in the eating, the value of the musical marathon is in the participation.


  • Maria says:

    Reading the blurb, it all sounds more about the conductor than Beethoven and the music!

    • Robert Holmén says:

      Beethoven and the music! have been thoroughly dissected over the last 200 years. The only varying element left to blog about the conductor.

    • Jonathan Sutherland says:

      May I remind ‘Maria’ that a published critique of a concert, opera, or any musical performance is not a paid publicist’s ‘blurb’ but rather the universally accepted term ‘review’. Of course one may disagree with the reviewer’s opinion, but if one has not actually heard the same performance, such a value-less viewpoint is not worth reading.
      In any case, Robert Holmén’s comment below is totally true.

  • A.L. says:

    But why?

  • KANANPOIKA says:

    As posted before, the nine Beethoven symphonies were performed in one day on 8 July, 1973, before a paying audience. There was just one orchestra, the Colorado Philharmonic, conducted by Walter Charles.

  • dgrb says:

    Amplification in the 9th????

    An abomination.

  • Sergey says:

    > Most Beethoven scholars agree that there was never a single conductor who mastered all nine symphonies with equal perspicacity or definitive interpretative originality

    That’s not true, as Weingartner conducted Beethoven cycles many times side 1902.

    • Jonathan Sutherland says:

      You misunderstand my point. Agreed that Weingartner may have conducted the cycle frequently but that is not the same thing as performing each symphony in the cycle with identical excellence, expertise or success.

      • Liam Allan-Dalgleish says:

        This is truly silly. Let’s begin with grammar. There are no degrees of excellence. One is either excellent or not. Success depends very much more on ancillary considerations than simple musical Begabung (and it’s called that for a reason. Talent is a gift). For example, I lived in Vienna not long after the war and it was almost embarrassing the love and “success” Bernstein received. The mayor would go to the airport to meet him. Had he arrived 25 years or so earlier, the mayor would have sent him off to a special camp to be welcomed. “In the cycle” implies there is more than one. And why pray say: Why would one value “identical” productions? That madman Gergiev would, praise God, never reach the musicianship and musicality of Boulez. A few decades ago, a guy in Vienna wrote an article called: “Was ist die Musikwissenschaft?”or something like that, in which he argued, as all here know, that in writing about music, we might do well to stick to the music and avoid the emotionally subjective. Stravinsky be my metaphor.

        • Jonathan Sutherland says:

          As Mr Allan-Dalgleish is so concerned with grammar, I would refer him to the relevant Oxford English Dictionary definition: “the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something.”
          To rephrase my comment in absolutely unambiguous terms, there has never been a single conductor who mastered all nine Beethoven symphonies with equal distinction.
          To give some specific examples: Carlos Kleiber’s readings of the central symphonies 4-7 can hardly be bettered but Klemperer is often conceded have the edge in the first.
          Bernstein rises above the pack in the 3rd and 5th (and arguably also the 9th), but the Furtwängler 1942 9th is still considered legendary.
          Von Karajan’s four sets of complete Beethoven symphony recordings, particularly the 1963 version, show how this very Teutonic of interpreters was less successful in the lighter 1st, 2nd and 8th symphonies but towers in the more powerful 3rd, 5th and 9th.
          The list is virtually endless but ultimately will come down to individual taste.
          Mr Allan-Dalgleish’s assertion that “in writing about music, we might do well to stick to the music and avoid the emotionally subjective” is patently absurd.
          Listening to music is an inherently ’emotionally subjective’ activity, and in the case of music writing, must be balanced with deep knowledge and years of experience.
          Sadly, since the passing of critics such as Andrew Porter, Harold Schonberg or Joachim Kaiser this is now seldom the case.

          • Mercer says:

            Agreed. I just don’t understand how such a simple and obvious statement could be received with such misunderstanding and resentment.

    • Hercule says:

      Do you really think that “most Beethoven scholars” would actually acknowledge such a conductor, let alone what “definitive interpretive originality” actually is? As for perspicacity, it seems that in modern times a faster tempo will do just fine.

  • T says:

    You can find a Beethoven marathon concert with 9 symphonies by the same orchestra and conductor on every New Year’s Eve in Tokyo since 2003, including a performance by Lorin Maazel in 2010.

  • Gustavo says:

    Uns geFeltz.

  • simon says:

    since when has Beethoven ever been ‘demonic’? some idiotic writing in this ‘review’, imho

  • Jonathan Sutherland says:

    If you want a literal use of ‘demonic’ in Beethoven, his use of the ‘Devil’s Tritone’ in Fidelio would be an example.
    In the sentence you find so objectionable, my use of the adjective is infinitely less Faustian.
    In fact it was intended to be closer to the obviously non-theological synonyms of ”frenetic” or “frenzied”.
    Just one tiny example would the fortissimo cello doubling with basses at page 177 (Breitkopf & Härtel Verlag) in the fourth movement of the 9th Symphony.
    If played with Beethoven’s desired intensity, “frenetic” would be an understatement.
    Perhaps you would be so kind as to explain why you consider such detailed knowledge of Beethoven’s scores to be ‘idiotic’.

  • D. says:

    By the overall biterness in the coments, I recon, they are written either by forsaken conductors or abbandoned pianists… A dark force, to respect anyways.

  • Save the MET says:

    The one note, I’d like to make is this could never be accomplished by a major first tier orchestra. The musician unions would not allow it. It’s a novel idea and I applaud them for their tenacity and the audience for making it through in one sitting, but to write a review expecting excellence from a Serbian orchestra in ever note and phrase is tomfoolery. One has to suspend nitpicking when one attends such events and take it for what it is.

    • guest says:

      Read the story more carefully before writing your note. It is not a novel idea – it has been done before. The symphonies were not played without a break in one sitting. There were two orchestras, one from Germany, alternating, with one conductor. I would guess you are in the USA. How much do you know about musicians unions in Europe or in Serbia? Finally, it is a strange assumption that excellence cannot be expected from a Serbian orchestra. Zubin Mehta thinks it has become one of the great European orchestras (; have you any grounds for disagreement? (Compared with many ‘second-tier’ European orchestras, US ‘first-tier’ orchestras are greatly overrated, at least in my opinion.)

    • Jonathan Sutherland says:

      I agree that neither the Belgrade nor Dortmund Philharmonic orchestras can rival the Berliner, Wiener or Chicago orchestras.
      They don’t pretend to.
      However the welcome absence of suffocating union regulations in the Balkans made such a unique event possible.
      No seriously objective music critic would ever expect ‘excellence from a Serbian orchestra in every note and phrase’.
      In fact, in such a long programme, I would not anticipate it from any orchestra, no matter how celebrated.
      It must be said however that the overall quality of playing of both the Belgrade and Dortmund Philharmonic orchestras in all 9 symphonies was far higher than expected.
      Unless you were actually at the event and heard the performances for yourself, your comments are as nugatory as theý are offensively condescending. Basta.