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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in d minor, op.125, “Choral” [58:39]
Benjamin Zander discusses Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
Rebecca Evans (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Derek Welton (bass-baritone)
Philharmonia Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Zander
rec. Watford Colosseum, UK, 2017
BRATTLE MEDIA 610877733781 [3 CDs: 218:35]

This is a fascinating and in many ways epoch-making issue. Benjamin Zander is not only a fine conductor – he is at present principal conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra – but also a true scholar; someone who not only feels deeply where music is concerned, but thinks deeply too, something that far from all conductors do.

The question of the metronome tempo markings in Beethoven’s scores (though he actually inserted metronome marks in his scores for only a relatively short period of time) is one that has occupied musicians and musicologists for many years. The argument often went “Beethoven’s metronome marks are so much faster than the way I think his music should be played; therefore there must have been something wrong with his metronome” – a clearly somewhat self-serving case. Over the past half century, numerous musicians have decided to give the markings a chance, and have often surprised listeners with how convincing this can be.

I would certainly recommend listening to Zander’s detailed discussion before listening to his interpretation (all two and a half hours’ worth!). He tackles the whole issue in an engaging and, largely, rigorous way, then explains in detail how he has applied it to the 9th Symphony. He is often politely but firmly critical of the interpretations of great conductors such as Furtwängler, Karajan, Bernstein and others; but the nice thing is that he is equally critical of his own earlier readings of Beethoven’s works!

There are so many aspects of this performance that are surprising, some will say ‘shocking’. And passages that some will find revelatory and others simply bizarre. But nothing is done for effect, everything is backed up by Zander’s impressive blend of scholarship and musicianship. Perhaps the most extraordinary moment of all comes in the finale, as the chorus arrives at that moment of great power – ‘Und der Cherub steht vor Gott’ – and the mind-blowing harmonic shift that takes place under the final repetition of ‘Gott’. Normally, that F major chord is sustained fortissimo; but Zander’s researches have found that Beethoven had added a diminuendo to this chord. The effect is unquestionably startling and rather wonderful.

The ineffable slow movement is a particularly interesting case; it has two main themes, and each occupies its own tempo, the first Adagio – very slow – and the second Andante moderato, suggesting a more flowing speed. The implication of those verbal descriptions is that the second theme will be somewhat quicker, yet its metronome mark in the score is 63 crotchets to the minute, while the Adagio’s is just 60 – hardly any difference at all. Zander’s point is that the sublime opening theme is best felt in two very slow beats to the bar – minims – rather than four crotchets. But that would require a marking of minim = 30 – and the lowest possible mark Beethoven had on his metronome was 50! It may sound nit-picking; but that consideration enables Zander to find, for me, the perfect tempo relationship between the two themes. Thus the whole movement makes even better musical sense than I had heard hitherto. These are crucial decisions, because, as any musician will tell you, finding the right tempo for the music is always the most significant key for unlocking the music’s expressive character.

Then there’s the scurrying Scherzo, with its more relaxed Trio. But is it more relaxed? This is far too complex to go into in detail here; but Zander’s findings suggest that the Trio really should go much quicker than it is usually played, and his argument is convincing. There are of course practical problems; there is a famously finger-twisting oboe solo here, which at this tempo becomes even more challenging. But the Philharmonia’s principal oboe, Gordon Hunt, surmounts the challenge magnificently - thereby setting a daunting new benchmark for succeeding generations of oboists!

There are so many other novelties and things to make you sit up and take notice – who knew that Beethoven had a piano at that first performance? It presumably fulfilled some sort of continuo function; but Zander feels that the piano’s bass notes can bolster the ‘cellos and basses in that terrifying storm that is the recapitulation of the first movement’s main theme. You won’t be able to hear it separately, but it’s there in the midst of the torrent of sound.

So, whether one ‘agrees’ with Zander’s interpretation or not, this issue is a vitally important addition to the Beethoven discography, and indeed to Beethoven studies generally. Yes, there are one or two places where I’m not quite sure yet that the innovations really work; but the important thing is that Zander has clearly convinced his orchestra, choir and soloists that the changes are worth implementing. The singing and playing is magnificently passionate and imaginative, and therefore 100% worth hearing.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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