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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Choral, Op. 125 (1823) [70:41]
Erin Wall (soprano); Kendall Gladen (mezzo); William Burden (tenor); Nathan Berg (bass); San Francisco Symphony Chorus
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. 27-30 June 2012, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY 821936-0055-2 [70:41]

The last time I came across Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was in a remarkable recording by The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jan Willem de Vriend on Challenge Classics (see review). I know Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Mahler symphonies series wasn’t universally loved, but with their stunning production values I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear what he and his band would make of Beethoven’s often strange and always compelling late masterpiece.
MusicWeb International’s Masterworks Index gives some idea of the wealth of recordings of this work both historical and more recent. While I’ve collected a fair few versions in my time I would find it tricky to pick out an absolute favourite, and impossible to recommend some kind of definitive 1st choice. What I find myself looking for these days are recordings which force a re-evaluation of the piece, something which pushes the boundaries of our understanding of the work and which goes beyond standard perceptions without creating some kind of strange un-Beethovenian monster. Tilson Thomas by no means creates a monster, but he does have an ear for the most radical aspects of this music, and in bringing these out does force some new thinking about Beethoven’s 9th.
I remember reviewing parts of András Schiff’s excellent cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and in some ways Tilson Thomas’s focus on some passages which have a transitional quality result in some of the most surprising moments. Take some of these out of context and you might be forgiven for thinking you were hearing orchestral music by someone like Ruud Langgaard. Try the first movement at 8:49 to perhaps about two minutes beyond. If you come across this in isolation then it can be disorientating enough, but with Tilson Thomas’s dramatic emphasis and full-on orchestral texture this has the kind of avant-garde thrill to which most of us composers can only aspire. Comparing Tilson Thomas with another great version, that with Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker (see review), and you have an entirely different vision. Abbado’s moment here is a dramatic storm which passes swiftly, getting us to take cover but with hardly any doubt that it will soon be over.
There is nothing particularly odd about Tilson Thomas’s interpretation of this mighty score, and comparing with another feisty SACD version from the BIS label, that with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra (see review) shows where he is in some ways less forward-looking. The timings for all of the movements are broader than Vänskä by minutes in all but the second Molto Vivace but, this given, Tilson Thomas maintains a gripping sense of shape and direction, creating a greater sense of restlessness in the apparent serenity of the Adagio molto e cantabile third movement. Even with a brisker tempo, Vänskä’s version of this movement is more of an even traversal, where Tilson Thomas holds back more frequently and allows Beethoven’s changes of tonality and thematic evolutions to take us more by surprise. Listen to the way time stands still from 7:49, with vibrato-free winds punctuated by almost invisible string pizzicati - and then the sun comes out at 9:26, and we suddenly know where we are going and from whence we emerged. I still like Vänskä here, but the effect is far more pastoral, Beethoven’s more youthful walk in the countryside rather than the troubling labyrinths in which he found himself later in life.
The final movement deserves a chapter all of its own, but Tilson Thomas’s consistent examination of Beethoven’s remarkable nuances brings another remarkable performance. At 24:50 it’s a little longer than some, but I don’t find it heavy or lumbering. Tilson Thomas lingers at certain points, emphasising the ‘modern’ feel of the music as he does elsewhere, somehow managing to do this without seeming mannered or artificial. No doubt there are those who will disagree, but vivre la difference, mon amis. The choral singing is very good, soloists very strong throughout. Nathan Berg’s opening solo has that wide vibrato we all love to hate, but at least he doesn’t ham things up as Geert Smits does for Jan Willem de Vriend. The general effect from Tilson Thomas’s live performance is less edge-of-the-seat exciting when compared to Abbado, but when the big tune arrives, Freude, schooner Götterfunken the choir is thrillingly energetic, the men not discomforted further on by Beethoven’s high notes in Seid umschlungen, Millioenen. The sense of triumph at the conclusion is palpable, though you will have to put up with a tumult of applause at the end.
With plenty of magical moments and a fine sense of shape this is a confident and admirable Beethoven Symphony No. 9. The recording is excellent, vividly vibrant and deep if perhaps not quite as spectacular as the Mahler, though his orchestra is that much bigger. Tilson Thomas gives us plenty to think about with his Beethoven, and I’ve enjoyed this recording hugely. Is it my all-time favourite? No, I don’t think it knocks Abbado out of consideration for that possible honour, although I suspect it does edge Vänskä a notch down in this particular work, even though I still hold his complete cycle in the highest regard. If you are looking for an impressively performed and refreshingly interpreted ‘choral’ symphony, and one in which you can explore as if within Beethoven’s troubled but heroically optimistic imagination, then this is a tremendous place to be.
Dominy Clements 

Masterowrk Index: Beethoven 9