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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, op. 125, Choral (1824) [72:14]
Angela Denoke (soprano)
Waltraud Meier (mezzo)
Burkhard Fritz (tenor)
René Pape (bass)
Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
rec. live Philharmonie, Berlin, 27 August 2006. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 63927-2 [72:14]

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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

This is the third CD by Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra whose formation with Edward Said he’s termed ‘The most important thing I have ever done.’ It follows CDs featuring the fifth symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. Even so, Beethoven 9 is a greater challenge. But the potential of its choral finale text ‘Alle Menschen werden Bruder’, ‘Brotherhood unites all men’, lies at the heart of this project, as this CD booklet states, the orchestra exists ‘for young musicians from Israel and various countries from the Middle East with the aim of combining musical study and development with the sharing of knowledge and comprehension between people from cultures that traditionally have been rivals.’ This performance is one product of several weeks’ summer workshop.

The soft The opening germination of the first movement first theme in D minor is very soft indeed yet gathers by tr. 1 0:41 into a full statement thundering out with grandeur, rhetorical power and at least the potential of tragedy. The second group of themes in B flat major from 2:42 starts by blending creamy woodwind and coaxingly soft strings, soon to be mixed with more heroic and stressful matter. The ambiguity and tension of this group is well conveyed. This ambiguity persists in the development (5:11), the smoother material now with some yearning. After a disciplined fugue there’s a wish to relax but also determination to move forward. The timpani splendidly turn on the heat at 9:27 but by 9:45 are less audible, though they are marked to hold a roll on D ff for 16 bars until 10:12 when they drop to f. The quiet passage at 15:54 just before the final onslaught smoulders evocatively and the close blazes with that bright, steely spirit that has characterized much of the movement.

We get very much a young orchestra’s second movement scherzo. The explosive opening is crisp and firm, the following fugato (tr. 2 0:05) feathery. When full orchestra comes together at 0:30 there’s a lithe engagement while the horns particularly relish their contribution at 0:47. But there’s no possibility of any lingering here: the second section repeat, which would come at 4:31 is omitted. The trio is blithe and quite pacy. Its rosy D major in this context seems more a trim normality than an idyll.

The slow movement’s first theme, in B flat major, is marked Adagio molto e cantabile. Barenboim is arguably over generous with the molto but is certainly cantabile, the first violins’ mezza voce sustained and expressive, the later wind echoes as eloquent as the strings. He creates an atmosphere of repose and sanctified contemplation. He also conveys the impression of more freedom as the movement progresses and the violins’ notes become shorter and more numerous.

In the mean time the second theme (tr. 3 3:09), an Andante moderato in D major, is more restless and worldly yet gives the second violins and violas the opportunity to show they can be equally communicative and in passionate fashion. Other outstanding features are the gorgeous clarinet lead from the return of the first theme at 8:16 and the carefree flowing semiquavers of the first violins from 9:48. I very much admire the response and inflection Barenboim gets from those violins. The fanfares from 12:07 are rather more formal and less heroic than they might be, but that’s how Barenboim sees them.

The finale begins in stormy clamour and a firm, pacy cellos and double basses’ recitative and rejection of attempts to return to the 3 earlier movements. But a growing softening of position even in the rejections paves the way for the Ode to Joy theme which appears very softly in cellos and double basses (tr. 4 3:19), almost mystically as if out of the centre of the earth. Its singing scope is sensitively established from 4:12 by cellos, now an octave higher, and violas and gently crowned from 5:03 by the first violins against an orchestral counterpoint that has rapidly become more elaborate yet with a sense of affectionate, dedicated craftsmanship here.

The theme blazes forth for the first time in the entire orchestra at 5:49 and this is given heroic treatment by Barenboim with vibrant strings’ chords. René Pape in the following bass recitative maintains this heroic aura and is soon aided by a regal, beaming oboe accompanying his delivery at 8:21 of the opening Schiller verse. Barenboim keeps up the tempo here and soloists and chorus respond sturdily and enthusiastically, you feel inspired by the orchestra’s example. And come the molto tenuto at the first climax, ‘vor Gott’, ‘before God’, the sopranos are required by Barenboim to sustain their top A for a full 10 seconds from 11:02. To appreciate this endeavour, try singing along with them some time!

Now the Turkish March provides a jolly East bit for the orchestra, yet just as memorable is the vigorous and exciting double fugue from 12:45. An instance of the contrast of skills Barenboim displays, however, is the nicely controlled pp opening at 23:34 to the final romp and the thrilling yet also accurate as fast as possible final flurry from 24:51. In sum, an exhilarating experience and wonderful parting testimony to the verve and spirit of the orchestra.

I compared another live performance recorded in 2006, that by Bernard Haitink with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (LSO Live LSO 0092).

Here are the comparative timings:















13:50 (11:46)




I find Haitink’s faster first movement more convincing. From the start there’s more tingling expectation in his tremolando strings and more biting attack to the presentation of the first theme with more emphatic timpani. His second group of themes is smoothly presented but with a rhythmic undercurrent always impelling them forward. His development fugue is rigorous and the timpani make more impact. He can bring a feel of reverie to the quieter moments without loss to his overall sense of momentum and drama.

Barenboim’s start is more mysterious and poetic, but less tense, which is characteristic of the movement as a whole. The delivery of the first theme has more rhetoric, less snarl about it. However, I like his more relaxed second group of themes because the contrasts are built into the music. His first and second violins’ demisemiquaver exchanges from tr. 1 4:18 are more stylish, if less exciting, than Haitink’s, but they are more exciting at their return at 12:25. Barenboim’s fugue from 7:05 is more formal than Haitink’s, very firm, less mordant, yet interestingly rather more pliable. He also brings more sheeny tenderness to the quieter passages.

Haitink’s scherzo looks slower in its published timing but is in fact a little faster than Barenboim’s because he repeats the second section. I have given the timing comparable to Barenboim’s in brackets in the table above. His fugato is sparkling and playful but becomes boisterous. His quieter passages are refined, the louder quite racy. His trio is smooth but pacy, as if engaged in blithe games, simple and innocent, yet always with momentum which displays the unity of this element and the movement.

Barenboim’s scherzo is more strongly contrasted, with the tempi a little more elastic. His fugato is more feathery but works itself into a full orchestra statement of livelier articulation with its rasping horns. The trio depicts more of an ideal state of affairs, a benign haven or reflection, yet also with a sense of purpose about it. Barenboim honours it more as a distinctive element in this movement. Unlike Haitink he isn’t using the Barenreiter urtext, which may explain the lack of scherzo second section repeat. Barenboim’s timpani motif at tr. 2 3:00 and 9:55 is presented soft because of the diminuendo marked for the wind parts, but as Haitink shows it should remain loud like its 4 predecessors.

Haitink’s swifter slow movement has at first a warmer, more tender effect because the shape of the melody is clearer, there’s less dwelling just on the moment. His second theme is equally searching but more insistent. His main tempo is comfortable, progressive and provides for a sense of mystery in the passages between sections. His fanfares have heroic splendour.

Barenboim is more sustained and reverent, with the focus at least as much on individual phrases as on paragraphs. The overall effect is more expressive, the question how expressive do you want this movement? His second theme is more ardent while the first violins’ later elaboration of the first is a thing of beauty in its own right. Yet at tr. 3 9:48 the theme is well shaped in the wind against the first violins’ glistening semiquavers.

Haitink’s finale has great urgency in its opening cellos and double basses’ recitatives yet more of a feel that their responses are germinating a theme. They then present the Ode to Joy theme smoothly and with a natural flow. Its full orchestra version is bright and crisp but not especially grand. Gerald Finley, Haitink’s opening bass soloist, is finely focussed with a gentler radiance than Barenboim’s, as is the oboe accompaniment. Haitink’s chorus is fresh and animated but he only requires them to stand five seconds ‘before God’. The Turkish March is jubilant enough and John Mac Master is a brighter, fuller-toned tenor soloist than Barenboim’s. Haitink then keeps the double fugue on a tighter rein. His chorus, however, presents ‘Freude, schöner Gotterfunken’, ‘Joy, O wondrous spark divine’ ecstatically and firmly launches into the later presentation of this text in tandem with ‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen!’, ‘Embrace each other now, you millions!’. Haitink’s close is lively enough too.

Barenboim’s opening cellos and double bass recitatives for the finale are sterner and more rhetorical: he sees the device dramatically whereas Haitink sees it symphonically. On first appearance the Ode to Joy theme, on cellos and double basses only, is marked p but Barenboim presents it pp. This makes the later progressive layering of the upper strings clearer, presented by Barenboim with more affection and nuance than Haitink. Barenboim’s full orchestra version has more grandeur and magnanimity.

Barenboim’s chorus is less incisive than Haitink’s but weightier. And it needs to be given the magnificent engagement of the orchestra with its ‘Freude, schöner Gotterfunken’ (tr. 4 14:25). Barenboim’s Turkish March is more impish. His double fugue has considerably more impetus. His chorus throws itself with gutsy resolution into the presentation of those two texts in tandem (18:56). And orchestra, at first with chorus, is truly supercharged in the closing sprint. In sum, Barenboim’s finale has more of a sense of occasion and is as moving as any I’ve heard.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s performance is a formidable achievement and one which grows in authority as it progresses. Being one performance only Barenboim’s recording has more integrity than the Haitink compilation from two concerts, but also therefore some less tidy moments. Both recordings are similarly bright in tone, Barenboim’s has rather more body. Haitink’s Beethoven is the more classical, Barenboim’s the more romantic. With Haitink you admire Beethoven’s consistency, with Barenboim you admire his contrasts. Haitink is much tidier, Barenboim more gripping. But if you only had Barenboim you’d not know how much more tense the first movement can be. And if you only had Haitink you wouldn’t know how much more colourful the finale can be.

Michael Greenhalgh


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