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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no.9 in D minor, Choral op. 125 (1825) [70:44]
Annette Dasch (soprano); Daniela Sindram (mezzo); Christian Elsner (tenor); Georg Zeppenfeld (bass)
Bavarian Radio Chorus
Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Stanislaw Skrowazcewski
rec. 23-26 May 2006, Kongreßhalle, Saarbrücken

Forgive 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.
A 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.
In 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.
Another 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.
Thus 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.
Since 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.
I 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.
Christopher Howell


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