me if I begin with minutiae, but it is in the minor points
that this performance scores, if at all. The broad but energetic
tempo chosen for the first movement allows the rushing demi-semiquavers
near the climax of the exposition and recapitulation to emerge
naturally, neither squashed nor dictating a momentarily slower
pace. Even better, the syncopated wind phrases which follow and
which invariably sound a mess, are quite clear. Ungratefully,
the demonstration left me wondering if Beethoven hadn’t actually intended to
give the idea that things were cracking up.
swift scherzo with a fairly steady trio can claim some authority
from Beethoven’s metronome marks, as can the fact that the
Andante second theme of the third movement hardly moves any
faster than the “Adagio molto e cantabile” first theme – Beethoven’s
markings are, respectively, 60 and 63. Bearing in mind that
any performance which is not dogmatically unmusical will
vary the tempo by more than three metronome points in the
course of a long movement, this is tantamount to saying that
the two tempi should be virtually the same. Skrowaczewski’s
tempo for this movement is fairly broad anyway and, as a
result of not moving on markedly in the Andante sections,
at 16:54 it is one of the longest I know. It is true that
Furtwängler could add another two minutes to this with spellbinding
results, and Toscanini – about three minutes shorter – was
a special case, but almost all the other recordings on my
shelf come somewhere between 15 and 16 minutes.
the finale Skrowaczewski has noticed that no pause is marked
before the beginning of the “joy” theme on the cellos and
basses, following the two crashing fortissimo chords, though
some might agree with Furtwängler that the drama of the situation
demands one anyway. Another slight difference from the norm
is that when the “Seid umschlungen Millionen” theme is combined
with the “Joy” theme in exultant double counterpoint, Skrowaczewski
takes a rather slow and majestic tempo, considerably slower
than the “military band” section with which it usually equated.
This is presumably because Beethoven has notated this section
in 6/4, whereas the “military band” section, with its following
orchestral fugue and the return of the “joy” theme in D major,
are notated in 6/8. Logic would say that a 6/4 section goes
slower than a 6/8 section, except that Beethoven gave a metronome
mark of 84 to both of them. I hope readers will bear with
this technical stuff but the upshot is that the musical notation
and the metronome marks are in conflict with one another
so the conductor who obeys the one must inevitably disregard
the other. In a note in the booklet, in fact, Skrowaczewski
explains that, while “respecting fully Beethoven metronome
figures, I still take them sometime ‘cum grano salis’.” I
reproduce the English as printed but presume the grammar
is not Skrowaczewski’s own.
point he makes regards orchestral balance, and I must say
the performance is of exemplary clarity, with lean Weingartnerish
string sonorities and the wind well forward.
far, so good. Skrowaczewski’s aim would appear to be to provide
a clear exposition of the score and leave the rest to Beethoven.
Since this symphony happens to be a towering masterpiece,
up to a point it works. My attention was held. As a non interventionist
interpretation it is true to its own lights. If you think
this is enough, then do away with your Toscaninis and your
Klemperers and your Furtwänglers and your Karajans with their
smarmy interpretations smothering every bar and get this.
You will at least have it proved that Beethoven’s 9th is
so multi-faceted that it can assume the sweet reasonableness
of Jane Austen just as it can rise to the grandeur of Goethe
or Tolstoy. For myself, I think that practically every other
version I’ve ever heard begins where this one leaves off.
And don’t suppose I hanker after personalized interpretations
at all costs. I’ve just given myself the pleasure of rehearing
Ansermet after a long interval – almost a locus classicus of
how to give a clear exposition of the score which nonetheless
leaves no doubt that great things are afoot. He also has
one of the finest solo quartets on disc, although the present
one is perfectly acceptable.
my criticism has so far been based on detail, let me give
one last case which seems to me symptomatic of the way this
performance ducks the real challenges. In the discordant
clamour that breaks out at the beginning of the finale, the
higher wind instruments play in unison or at the octave.
The trumpet shares some of their notes – those the trumpet
of Beethoven’s day could manage – before resorting to bashing
away at a single note with the timpani. Weingartner argued
that, given modern trumpets, Beethoven would have had them
play the melodic line along with the flutes, oboes and clarinets.
For many years this opinion went unchallenged. Ansermet’s
trumpets blast out their chromatic lines for all they’re
worth. More recently, in the light of “authentic” performances,
it has been suggested that Beethoven made creative virtue
out of necessity. Sir Roger Norrington has likened the original
trumpet part to the cackle of a witch with a few teeth missing.
And Skrowaczewski? Quite honestly, his trumpets are so discreetly
balanced in the background that I can’t be sure what they
are playing. A sort of diplomatic solution that appeases
all and pleases none.
suppose a disc like this provides a service of a sort to
future memory. If someone today were to proclaim that the
finest interpreters of this symphony were, say, Hugo Rignold
and Anatole Fistoulari, I daresay it would be impossible
now to find recorded evidence to prove the point either way.
If someone two generations hence proclaims that Skrowaczewski
alone had the secret of this work, well, thanks to this record
we can prove it was not so. A warm recommendation, then,
to those who buy records in order to prove they were not
worth buying, and they’d better snap it up soon, for it’s
unlikely to have a long shelf-life.