What Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony means to contemporary civilization is beyond debate. It’s the summa theologica of classical music, the ultimate expression of love and brotherhood. What it meant to Fanny Mendelssohn was quite different; she described the symphony, after hearing her brother Felix conduct it, as “a gigantic tragedy, whose finale is intended to be exalted but capsizes at its climax and slides into the opposite extreme, into burlesque.” What it meant to Beethoven is matter of speculation. The Ninth, when one actually listens to it, is riddled with ambivalences, questions, mysteries. It’s not necessarily the “God’s in his heaven all’s right with the world” experience we’ve made of it. Nonetheless, the performance the Boston Landmarks Orchestra gave Thursday at the Hatch Shell, under music director Christopher Wilkins, was as rousing and convincing as one could hope to hear in the open air.
Given that a standard interpretation of the Ninth runs about 65 minutes, it generally has company on a concert program. The Landmarks’ appropriate choices, all Beethoven, were the Turkish March, the Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F, and selections from the Incidental Music for Goethe’s Egmont.
The Turkish March first appeared in Beethoven’s 1809 composition Six Variations on an Original Theme. Two years later, he recycled it into his Incidental Music for August von Kotzebue’s play The Ruins of Athens. Lasting just a couple of minutes, the piece looks ahead to the Turkish janissary music in the finale of the Ninth. This performance featured the Turkish crescent — basically a pole with a crescent-shaped crosspiece and bells attached. Wilkins said that though the BLO version might suggest something that belonged in the historical-instrument collection of the MFA, it had actually been assembled out of components from Home Depot and Lowe’s. It did look authentic, and BLO percussionist Craig McNutt shook it vigorously, but like the rest of the Turkish elements, it didn’t register very audibly. Wilkins’s reading, however, was jaunty and sensibly paced.
Written in 1798 but not published till 1805, the Romance in F is a sweet, uncomplicated rondo. Wilkins’s soloist was Canadian violinist Adrian Anantawan, who, despite being born without a right hand, has made an international career for himself that’s included performing at the White House and at both summer and winter Olympics. His Romance was intense but not headlong, his tone had a nice acidity, and the balance between violin and orchestra was just right.
The Incidental Music for Egmont was composed in 1810 and had the approval of Goethe, whose 1787 drama tells the tragic tale of the 16th-century Flemish count who fought and died for the independence of the Low Countries. The score, for soprano, male narrator, and orchestra, comprises an overture and nine pieces; the overture is a popular concert item but the rest of the music is rarely programmed. The BLO’s selection began with “Die Trommel gerühret” (“The Drum Resounds”), in which Egmont’s mistress Klärchen (Goethe’s invention) describes her beloved as armed for war and wishes she could be a man and follow him. Soprano Michelle Johnson was powerful and fervent, if a bit strident up top.
Wilkins followed with the last of Egmont’s four Entractes — “Poco sostenuto e risoluto” — and that led directly into the Overture. The brooding F-minor sostenuto introduction was grave and weighty and full of drama; the Allegro main section was a shade static and didn’t quite build suspense for the release into the “victory” coda.
As popular as Beethoven’s Ninth is, who can hum any part of the opening movement? It’s not all that listener-friendly. The D-minor first theme crashes down like a thunderbolt from Zeus against the Titans; the second-theme complex is elusive and Protean. The development is oddly desultory — where’s the conflict? Then the recapitulation erupts out of nowhere, and in a threatening D major. If it wasn’t clear already that Beethoven is playing with sonata form, and with our expectations, a funeral march eventually develops, prompting us to wonder whether the symphony’s hero has died before the first movement is even over.
At 13 minutes, Wilkins’s reading of this movement hewed close to Beethoven’s metronome mark, and it certainly thundered. It also had a tendency to be vertical rather than horizontal, to dig in when Beethoven wanted the music to fly. The movement is not outdoor-friendly, either: the details of texture and volume that give it shape are the very things a sound reinforcement system is apt to obscure. What emerged here was grand but not revolutionary.
The Scherzo, Molto vivace, appears straightforward — it begins as a steady march before growing ferocious — but there’s controversy regarding the Trio, which, despite being a Presto, has the exact same metronome mark as the Scherzo. It’s been speculated that Beethoven meant there should be 116 bars to the minute in both the 3/4 Scherzo and the 2/2 Trio; Benjamin Zander takes the Trio at that extreme speed in his 1992 recording with the Boston Philharmonic. Most conductors, observing the Presto indication, settle for a tempo that’s faster than the Scherzo but still has some give. Toward the end of the movement, the Trio starts up again, and for a moment it seems an already long (for a Beethoven Scherzo) movement is headed for 15, even 20 minutes, but Beethoven cuts the Trio off after just a few seconds — another sign that we’re not in classical-music Kansas anymore.
Wilkins’s initial fugue was light and bracing, quick, but not driven, and what had been Mendelssohnian, turned menacing, as it should. Even with the omission of the second section repeat, however, the movement lumbered on and on, the battering timpani making it seem heavy. Perhaps that was Beethoven’s intent. Again, the amplification may have sucked the finesse out of the interpretation.
The sublime third movement is actually a set of double variations, the Adagio molto e cantabile opening theme alternating with an Andante moderato. Here too there’s a tempo enigma: the 4/4 Adagio is marked at a quick (for an Adagio) 60 quarter notes to the minute, the 3/4 Andante only marginally faster, at 63. Zander has argued that the solution is to “hear” the Adagio section as 30 half notes to the minute — as if Beethoven had written it in 2/2. Beethoven didn’t, however, and for me two beating in two elides the anguish in this theme. Most conductors disregard the metronome marks; Bernstein, in his 1989 “Ode to Freedom” performance in the Berlin Schauspielhaus, extended the movement to 20:36, as against Zander’s 10:31.
Wilkins steered a middle course, with an Adagio in 48 and an Andante at around 60. The upper strings sounded undernourished (very possibly the loudspeakers again), and I could have wished for more contrast between the two themes, one serene, the other troubled. The demanding, chromatic solo for the fourth horn was well executed, and the martial outbursts toward the end suggested Napoleon returning yet again from exile to curtail freedom.
There’s been no refuge in these first three movements, so no surprise that the finale opens in darkness, with what Wagner called a “horror fanfare.” Cellos and basses respond with a querulous recitative, as if to ask where the preceding 40 minutes have taken us. Brief, unsatisfying reminiscences of the first three movements flash by before the “An die Freude” (To Joy) melody emerges in the winds. The violas and cellos take it up, the violins join in; finally, it spreads to the full orchestra. At this point, the “horror fanfare” reasserts itself, as if to ask, “Is that all you got?” It isn’t. The baritone steps up with “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!! (Oh friends, not these sounds!), and then launches into the first verse of Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem.
Wilkins took the recitative in tempo, as Beethoven instructed, and he got a forthright response from his cellos and basses. That was matched by his baritone, Ron Williams, who gave new meaning to “authoritative” as he stamped out “Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium.”
At first it seems we’re good to go to the finish. The poem contains nine verses and nine choruses; Beethoven set the first three verses and the first, third, and fourth choruses. A quartet of soloists sing the second and third verses, backed by the chorus. Wilkins’s quartet — Johnson and Williams joined by contralto Emily Marvosh and tenor William Hite — didn’t blend very well; they all had strong individual voices, but somehow the result engaged rather than irritated. Scott Allen Jarrett’s Back Bay Chorale was supplemented by the One City Choir —volunteers who qualify by showing up for rehearsal. Not all the 160 singers could fit on the stage; the overflow entered from the Storrow Drive side of the Shell, crossing to gather on the apron stage right. There was nothing amiss in their performance: enunciation was as good as anyone could expect; “Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt” projected quite intelligibly.
Schiller’s poem is quirkier than we tend to remember. He was speaking to his fellow man, not his fellow woman; “All men will be brothers” apart, there’s the line congratulating the man who’s won a fair lady for his wife.
And this one: “He who cannot rejoice, let him steal weeping away from our band.” Beethoven didn’t blink at those thoughts, or at the odd idea of juxtaposing the cherub standing next to God with the worm that’s been granted sexual ecstasy.
The “Alla marcia” section is another musical puzzle. The tempo is given as Allegro assai vivace, but the metronome mark is 42 measures per minute, quite slow. Bassoons, contrabassoons, and bass drum begin with what has been described as a series of farts, and when the march proper starts up, it’s set to Turkish Janissary music, heavy on piccolo, triangle, cymbals, and bass drum. This would seem to be Beethoven’s little joke: a village band, perhaps intoxicated, sauntering along while the tenor urges us to hurtle down our path like a hero to victory. Zander would have it that Beethoven meant this march to go at a heroic 84 measures per minute. As with the Scherzo’s Trio, the written mark seems implausibly slow and the alternative implausibly fast.
Beethoven’s setting of “Above the canopy of the stars a loving Father must dwell . . . Beyond the stars he must dwell” could also raise doubts, since the final word, “wohnen,” seems to dissolve in the emptiness of the universe rather than the glory of the stars. What Schiller wrote as a statement sounds almost like a question, and it’s answered by a return to “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” in a jaunty 6/4, Beethoven more comfortable with Joy than with God, and with his feet on the ground.
Wilkins, like many of his peers, took the “Alla marcia” fast but not Zander-fast; he got a heroic solo from Hite, and he allowed himself the necessary time to shape the “Seid umschlagen, Millionen!” section. But the 6/4 “Freude” ran half again as fast as Beethoven’s metronome mark, and the final “Prestissimo” pages, again like many performances, were very Prestissimo. Here Beethoven’s metronome mark calls for a more measured tempo, one suitable to marching or even dancing. Zander in his Boston Philharmonic recording and Jonathan McPhee in his 2007 performance with the Longwood Symphony Orchestra have shown how triumphant that tempo can be.
Still, this Ninth triumphed in its own way, as creditable, intelligent, free Beethoven from a summer orchestra and a largely community chorus. The late Charles Ansbacher founded the Landmarks Orchestra in 2000, as a gift to Boston. It keeps on giving.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.