I don’t want to try and count how many recorded performances of Beethoven’s Ninth
are currently available, and feel even less inclined to estimate the number of those long gone and forgotten. Amongst recently issued performances is one from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly, part of a complete set. This issue from Nimbus Alliance seems also to be part of a projected cycle, and with it, Macau-born Yondani Butt places himself squarely amongst the finest musical minds ever to have strode the planet. Comparisons, though regrettable, are inevitable.
The Rite of Spring
must be monstrously difficult to conduct, but in its way the first statement of the main theme of the finale of the Ninth
is just as great a challenge for the conductor. Cellos and basses in octaves, no harmony at all, nothing to latch on to! How to avoid it sounding merely ordinary? Kurt Masur (Philips, 1974) and Nicolas Harnoncourt (usually too idiosyncratic a conductor for me, Teldec, 1991) both manage to invest more meaning into this extraordinarily simple music than Yondani Butt does here. The rest of the finale goes well enough, with a good quartet of soloists, of whom the best is probably the tenor, his “Turkish” passage one of the high points of the movement. The fugato passage that follows is also very successful, but it is revealing that the loud repeated octaves that close the passage lack meaning, and the gentler ones that lead into the following section are short on mystery. The chorus acquits itself well for the most part, sometimes sounding under strength, sometimes not, but certainly sounding under strain in the passage that begins with the tenors and basses in octaves at the words “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!”
Wanting to avoid turning in a predictable review, I listened to this performance five times, finding, latterly, and with a certain shame, that in the earlier movements at least, I was tempted to do something else at the same time. Familiarity with the work obviously requires that a recording be something special if it is to be totally involving, and the brutal truth is that this performance is nothing special. One hopes that the conductor will assert himself to the point of saying “Like it or not, this is my view of this work. Take it or leave it!” Among the surprises on my shelves is a performance from Erich Leinsdorf wherein the conductor does just that. Coupled with, of all things, Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw
, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s packed with personality. Yondani Butt, on this showing, hasn’t succeeded in communicating a strong personality to the orchestra, with the result that much of the performance is competent but ordinary. The first movement lacks its essential grandeur of utterance, and the almost demonic, driving rhythmic force of the scherzo is largely absent too. These are not questions of tempo, as, for the most part, Butt’s choices of tempo are unexceptional. Nor is it poor orchestral playing, as the opposite is the case. Most disappointing of all is the sublime slow movement. This presents the conductor with the same kind of difficulty as the unison passage in the finale, which is to say that the music’s greatness is concealed in the notes rather than revealed by them. Just as the slow movements of some of Beethoven’s piano sonatas require a player of genius, or something approaching that, to establish and maintain that other-worldly, visionary atmosphere, so is the same required here. The results are prosaic, and the fanfares, near the end, even rather feeble.
Every collection should have one or other of Furtwängler’s performances of the Ninth
, but thereafter it is each to his own. As a young collector my regular version was conducted by Ernest Ansermet – not a name that would immediately suggest itself in Beethoven – on Decca’s old Ace of Clubs label. I’ve been delighted to renew my acquaintance with this performance recently on Eloquence, and even more delighted to find that it still thrills me as much as it did then. I have always admired Solti’s performance from Chicago, but can’t be doing with the widely-praised reading from David Zinman (1998, Arte Nova). Indeed, many, perhaps even most, of those modern performances that seek out authenticity seem to me to lose much of the essential, imposing quality of Beethoven’s monumental work. It’s all very personal, and who would be brave enough to recommend an ideal modern Ninth
? Not I, certainly. But there is a fairly recent recording that I should be willing at least to defend against its detractors. It shows, amongst other virtues, that even in 2006 it was possible to find a way of giving the Ninth
that, if not new, was certainly fresh, as well as challenging and exciting, and all that without resorting to exaggerated interpretative details. I’m referring to Osmo Vänskä’s reading on BIS, with the Minnesota Orchestra.