first impression may be of a certain inertness, but I think
you will quickly be impressed at how steadily the first movement
moves ahead, with the inexorable tread of a cortège, even the
tragic weight of a Via Crucis. With such a burden of
pain, and at a broad tempo, the music might easily have sagged,
but there is also a Toscanini-like grip to lead it forward.
The sound, furthermore, is never heavy. Abbado probes into the
textures with a Boulez-like searchlight. Many details which
I had noted with my eye but never really heard are not only
present but made to take their place in the overall scheme.
scherzo, at a moderate speed and with all repeats, manages to
maintain an air of mystery while the trio is extremely perky.
The slow movement is again broad but never becalmed. The phrasing
and playing are extremely beautiful. The great melodic arches
do not reach out to the millions as they are sometimes made
to do. Rather, this is a very interior meditation, a personal
prayer, even a purification of the self in preparation of the
first part of the finale is notable for the way Abbado makes
the instrumental recitatives really speak. The joy theme itself
enters very serenely and as it swells to forte I wondered if
this movement would succeed in definitively crowning the others.
But we must remember Abbado’s long experience in the opera house
and he knows very well that a tempo that sounds a little slow
on the orchestra may be exactly right when voices enter and
have to fit words to it. And so it proves. As the tenor launches
into the theme we are in a world of transparent light-heartedness
not far removed from the “Magic Flute” and from then onwards
we never look back. Abbado manages the numerous tempo changes
as naturally as I have ever heard, giving gravity to the slower
portions without undue weight. The final solo quartet is faster
than usual and makes sense for once, the soprano actually sounding
at ease in the concluding ascent. I think that what I like about
this performance is that Abbado invites you to share his joy
but does not browbeat you into being joyful whether you like
it or not, always the danger with a more massive performance.
its search for textural clarification, in its rejection of both
Teutonic weight (à la Klemperer) and apocalyptic drama
(à la Toscanini), this is an essentially modern performance.
It is also a profoundly religious one. If I wanted to summarize
the programme suggested by the four movements, it might be something
like “Pain – futility – prayer – fulfilment”. It is certainly
not a very Germanic overview, but Beethoven is big enough to
take a range of interpretations. It is, I would say, an deeply
Italian conception. Not the Italy of spaghetti and football
finals, or even of Verdi, but linking back to the intensely
humanized religious dramas of such painters as Tintoretto and
above all Caravaggio.
is, I think, one of the great Ninths on record. There could
never be consensus on the “best version” and no one should limit
himself to just one. I hope my description will help you decide
if this one is for you. It will be particularly welcomed, I
would say, by anyone who feels that Beethoven is excessively
preachy in this symphony. Maybe they will find Abbado’s vision
one they can share.