in: Reviews

March 28, 2017

Beethoven’s Ninth: Tempi Tempests

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Benjamin Zander has been exploring the Beethoven Ninth for 40 years; no other piece of music has occupied his imagination over so long a period. What must be regarded as the culmination of his absorption took place 10 days ago in London: a performance in the Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Philharmonia Chorus and quartet of soloists, and a studio recording with the engineers and producers responsible for Zander’s Mahler and Bruckner issues.

The performance incorporated the results of Zander’s investigation of all of the text sources and consideration of every dynamic mark, expressive sign, and tempo indication that Beethoven wrote in the score, the parts, and the many other documents relating to the symphony. Most revealing were the metronome indications, several of which are frequently disregarded. These are of great importance in determining the character of movements as a whole and of various sections. Some have consistently been decried as unplayably fast, although Beethoven characterized correct realization of his tempi as “extremely necessary”. In performance and recording Zander showed that these tempi are in fact playable, although in some instances far from easy, and that they are the keys to an extraordinary and rarely tapped vein of eloquence in the symphony.

The first rehearsals were with the 130 members of the Philharmonia Chorus. Chorus master Stefan Bevier is a man whose perfectionist demands are almost impossible to meet and whose methods almost make Toscanini seem benign, and he has honed the chorus into a musical body of precision, eloquence, range, and power. Zander’s interpretation drew them in: several members confessed after rehearsal that they had been dreading yet another Beethoven Ninth, but found themselves embarked on an enthralling adventure.

After a few days’ rehearsal, the demanding recording sessions began, in the Watford Colosseum, north of London, one of the prized recording venues in the world. Early in the process we hit the first snag: the trio of the second movement. Listeners recall this from the bucolic oboe tune and merry bassoon, moving at a comfortable and commodious pace in almost all recordings of the symphony. In the section there are several textual problems that musicologists wrangle over, but analysis and data have now established for certain that Beethoven intended it to go at 116 to the bar. This is very fast, so fast that it taxed the virtuosic players of the Philharmonia to the limit of what they could do. Hardest hit are the oboe and the horn, and it was moving to see how earnestly they worked on their solos, so exposed yet needing to sound effortless. The first horn even took his break to come up to the recording booth with his horn, listen to playbacks, and receive some note-by-note coaching through the treacherous passage. The result is playing of magical deftness, leggiero, exactly as Beethoven demands.

Another hurdle to be overcome, one that could have been a stumbling block for the project, was the tempo for the sublime Adagio. Most of the early recordings of the Ninth, including famous performances like Furtwängler’s and Mengelberg’s, document a Romantic approach, unfolding at Wagnerian length, at half the speed that Beethoven clearly indicates (quarter note = 60). More-recent recordings, like Bernstein’s and Rattle’s, continue the tendency. Zander takes Beethoven at his word, convinced that, when properly handled, this unexpectedly flowing tempo, which admittedly would challenge the players in passages, could seem natural, both songlike (cantabile) and inevitable. And so it turned out: the performance had an ethereal serenity (the quick 16th notes in the first violins in the 12/8 section were gossamer) that held everyone—the team in the booth as well as the players—spellbound.

The implementation of a late revision by the composer in one of the climaxes of the last movement chorus will probably come as the major surprise. At the grandest point so far in the movement, with the “Cherubim standing before God”, Beethoven’s first conception for the final “vor Gott” was to hold the grand harmony change molto tenuto, followed by a sudden silence. Well before the 1824 Vienna première, though, he created even higher awe by introducing a gradual, unexpected diminuendo to piano, a stunning effect. It was only through glitches in the correcting and the printing that this inspired revision failed to make it into the published scores.

“Electrifying” was the word for Robert Murray’s immediately following tenor solo, where he exclaims (pianissimo, as Beethoven wanted but one never hears) his awe at contemplating “Heaven’s wondrous firmament”, which transforms imperceptibly into a hero-to-be approaching boldly with his troops. And right on the heels of this comes the furious “battle”, one of Beethoven’s headlong fugues. The metronome mark of 84 is faster than the orchestra imagined it could be played, and it did appear for a moment that we would have to settle for something a bit slower but still exhilarating. Concertmaster Stephanie Gonley made a suggestion: she pointed out that in Beethoven’s day the violinists would have played the passage on the string rather than bouncing the bow as players do it today. That simple change made all the difference, and the recorded version of the fugato, exactly at 84, has a volcanic ferocity.

Critical writing about Beethoven’s metronome marks has tended to misrepresentation. The most prevalent is that Beethoven’s markings are faster than generally accepted today. But some are slower. Everyone will hear at once that three of the tempos in the chorus of the finale are statelier than what we usually hear. The majesty of the broad sonic waves of the double fugue, where both major themes combine repeatedly, was deeply moving in the recording sessions as well as in the live performance a week later. The final marchlike Prestissimo usually has the choir gabbling desperately, with string writing that can only be sketched in. But here such burlesque was entirely absent, and rousing exuberance led all on. The third slower tempo was the final orchestral peroration, usually whipped up into unplayability, but here the last statement to joy by exuberant trumpets burst forth.

Of soloists Rebecca Evans, Patricia Bardon, Robert Murray, and Derek Welton it had been a revelation in rehearsal to hear how blended they were. Attention to detail made that an inspired preparation for the testing days ahead. Donald Tovey and others consider the quartet’s ornamental second variation on the joy theme to be “the most difficult passage ever written for voices”. But they did it superbly, matched by the chorus in its repetition of their last section, and their final inwardly searching quartet was most accomplished.

Zander relaxes at home (BMInt staff photo)

For the concert, Zander repeated a spectacular effect that he had first tried out with the Akron Symphony a month before. The inveterate problem with the soloists in live performance of the Ninth is that either you pause after the third movement to allow them to come on stage, with all the attendant applause and disruption, which undercuts the dramatic attacca of the opening of the Finale, or you have them come on before the Adagio, forcing them to sit there throughout the entire movement. Neither option is satisfactory. Zander’s solution is ingenious. When the Finale opened, there were no soloists on the stage. It was only when the full orchestra burst out yet again with the discordant and chaotic “terror-fanfare” (Wagner) that bass Derek Welton rushed onstage with his exhortation “O friends, not these sounds!” It was a coup de théâtre. The other three soloists filed on quietly while the chorus was singing. It seemed the perfect solution; one wonders if it will be taken up.

The March 18 concert included the Coriolan Overture and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Mei Yi Foo. Both performances were alert and informed.

At the close of the five demanding recording sessions Zander made clear to the orchestra the depth of his gratitude for their help in realizing his longstanding devotion to the Ninth in so inspiring and exact a way. At the end of the concert during the prolonged standing ovation [a rarity in the UK], his profound satisfaction was evident, but I believe it was ours that was the deepest gratitude of all.

Stewart Young, musicologist, pianist and teacher residing in Cape Town, was an advisor to Zander during the recording.

3 Comments

  1. Salini Impregilo celebrates Toscanini and recalls him with a book on his life https://goo.gl/qR0Ehd

    Comment by Massimo Giugno — March 29, 2017 at 4:15 am

  2. Nevertheless, as much as I also admire Toscanini’s work and legacy, a comment like that about Bevier could be grounds for a lawsuit.

    Comment by Camilli — March 29, 2017 at 2:36 pm

  3. A concertmaster and violin prof concurs:

    “Gonley is absolutely right about spiccato NOT being the fallback to executing short notes, and that bows, although they were in wild transition during the first half of the 19th century, … happily sit on the string in fast passages and spit out highly articulate notes but with more control melodically and literally. The study that Kolisch did on Beethoven’s metronome marks [is a] bible …. [In the violin sonatas] faster tempi are possible, due to the fortepiano timbre and ease of articulation along with what I learned using a bow that had no interest in leaving the string.”

    Comment by david moran — March 31, 2017 at 12:36 am

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