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CD Baby

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in d minor, op.125, “Choral” [58:39]
Rebecca Evans (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Derek Welton (bass-baritone)
Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra/Benjamin Zander
rec. Watford Colosseum, UK, 2017
Discs 2 & 3 Benjamin Zander discusses Beethoven's Ninth [2:39:56]
BRATTLE MEDIA 610877733781 [3 CDs: 218:35]

I probably won't be challenged by anyone when I assert that this new Benjamin Zander Beethoven Ninth on Brattle Media will stir a good measure of controversy, maybe a huge measure. It is the fastest version I know of from among the twenty or more recordings I possess of the work and the numerous others I’ve heard either in live performance or from another recorded source. An average-length Beethoven Ninth will last around seventy minutes, while brisk versions reduce that timing by five minutes or so and slow ones increase it by several. The previous fastest rendition I’m aware of was by Philippe Herreweghe with the Orchestre des Champs Elysées on Harmonia Mundi which clocked in at a very lean 62:29. This new effort by Benjamin Zander has a timing of 58:39! For some it will be hard to imagine this symphony coming in at under an hour: is the conductor going beyond the outermost limits, edging toward breakneck speeds? Maybe. But we must remember that the stopwatch, when serving as judge and jury is quite fallible.

The first movement opens at a brisk tempo, which is maintained throughout, but Zander’s pacing is actually not egregious at all. In fact, I rather like his take on this opening panel: he draws precise and fairly-detailed playing from the Philharmonia players and manages to convey a sense of urgency, of struggle and conflict in the music, which is exactly what Beethoven wanted. The Scherzo opens in a rather standard tempo, somewhat brisk but hardly unusual. Again, Zander imparts a feeling of urgency, but it doesn’t override the overall celebratory character of the music. Fortes and percussion are potent, but fit in well with the conductor’s epic vision of the score here. What may raise eyebrows though is the very quick tempo in the Trio section: I've never heard it taken this fast or even nearly this fast. But, of course, the marking is Presto and the conductor’s tempo is arguably a Presto. Still, the music sounds a little too hurried and some detail gets lost.

More than a few Beethoven mavens may also object to the tempo of the Adagio, which, once again, is faster than I've ever encountered before. With a timing of 11:07 for a movement typically lasting fifteen or sixteen minutes in other performances, the music may strike some as more of an Andante or even Moderato. Yet, I think Zander’s tempo is arguably in the Adagio range; moreover, I like his more animated take on the music here: the mood is brighter and less solemn than customary, even if at times the playing sounds a little aggressive and pushy.

What may be Zander's greatest success is the finale, a movement which has always been a little problematic: Verdi thought the vocal writing was bad and Beethoven’s friend and contemporary Louis Spohr, with possibly a bit of envy, called the music here “monstrous and tasteless”. Well, it’s hardly “monstrous and tasteless,” but it is somewhat bombastic and the vocal writing is extremely taxing on some of the singers. Still, it’s great music. In Zander’s version the flaws one might associate with the music seem less apparent, thanks to the brisk pacing and intelligent phrasing. In sum this is a thrilling account where the feeling of final triumph vanquishes any sense of bombast or garishness. Here, not only does the orchestra play with utter commitment, as they do throughout the work, but the chorus is simply splendid, especially in the latter half. The vocal soloists are fine too, if not outstanding.

The sound reproduction from Brattle Media is clear and well balanced. As indicated in the heading, this is a three-CD set, with two of the discs being devoted to the conductor explaining his interpretation, including his very brisk tempos. That's a nice bonus but hardly the reason to acquire this set: this is perhaps the most valid new interpretation of a Beethoven symphony in decades. Some will call it revelatory and I won't challenge that assertion. If you admire Beethoven and his symphonies (who doesn't?), this Ninth is definitely worth your attention.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Gwyn Parry-Jones (Recording of the Month)



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