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Getting Beethoven’s 9th “Right” This Time?


After decades of wrestling with the master’s metronome markings and learning from “successes and errors” in performances and recordings, Benjamin Zander told BMInt that he thinks he has found a way of reconciling the two contrary ways of interpreting the work – the Romantic and the more historically informed approach. Thus, in the Boston Philharmonic performances at Symphony Hall on February 24th and at Carnegie Hall on February 26th (replacements for planned performances in the anniversary year) audiences will learn how Zander has decided that adherence to the tempo markings needs to be leavened with flexibility and rubato, (which Beethoven himself certainly practiced in his piano playing), so that the thrilling and driven tempi he indicates with his metronome marks are interspersed with more lyrical and “romantic” passages. In this way,  he can reconcile dueling maestros―descended from Wagner on one side, and from the more classical Mendelssohn on the other―into a single interpretation.

The perennial debate as to the accuracy of those Maelzel markings has, according to Zander, by now been put behind us, because rendering many of Beethoven’s metronome marks has become common practice amongst conductors and quartet players. For example, the tempo of the Scherzo (Mov. 2) of the Ninth is always performed at Beethoven’s tempo of 116, or very close (listen to any recording). On the other hand, the tempo of the Trio (also marked at 116) in all probability will be heard in In Symphony Hall on February 24th and Carnegie Hall on February 26th for the very first time as Beethoven imagined it, and as a critic at the first performance described it as “an exhilarating march” (NB 116 is a typical march tempo,  e.g. The British Grenadiers. As another example the opening of the Finale (The Terror Fanfare) sounds too tame if it is rendered under Beethoven’s scoriating marking of 66.

To put Zander’s 58-minute recordings (BPO in 1992 and Philharmonia in 2018) in context, one can cite Toscanini’s recordings (65 minutes to 75 minutes), Karajan (avg 65), Mengelberg (78) Muti ( the longest at 81). Zander says he doesn’t know how long his new interpretation will last because he hasn’t ever performed the work with so much freedom. Moreover, since he no longer feels bound to a strict adherence to the tempo throughout a movement, it will be different each time.

Of course the impression that the music makes in actual performance is more important than the time it takes to elapse. We like neither rushed nor maudlin takes, so it will be interesting to see how Zander’s interpretation has evolved from the 2018 recording, which in spite of its brilliant rendition by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus (The Sunday Times raved: “It heaps revelation on revelation”), left him realizing there was still more to discover and reveal.

A Danish camera team has been following his evolution with this work over the past nine years and will be present to film the rehearsals and the Carnegie performance, to serve as the culmination of a documentary that tracks his journey with the Ninth, since he performed it with the same forces at Carnegie Hall 40 years ago.

Zander’s two and one-half hour talk on the symphony goes at just the right tempo for some [listen HERE] but he will shorten it for the upcoming performances ― 6.45 p.m. in Symphony Hall and 1.30 p.m. in Carnegie Hall.

Zander told Broadway World’s Chloe Rabinowitz that this approach opens up a whole new possibility.

In the wake of Wagner and Bruckner, the great Romantic conductors like Furtwaengler, Erich Kleiber, Mengelberg and many conductors of following generations, approached Beethoven’s Ninth as The Word of God, ignoring Beethoven’s fervently advocated tempo indications,” Zander says. “On the other hand, Rene Leibowitz and I, in the 70’s, took our cue from the more classical approach of Mendelssohn, both being influenced by Rudolf Kolisch’s ground-breaking work on tempo. Somewhat later in the 80’s and 90’s historically informed conductors, like Norrington and Gardiner, treated Beethoven’s text, including the tempos, as Holy Writ, to be argued over religiously.” What Zander is proposing in this new approach, Zander 2.0, to unite the two camps a single powerful and moving vision. ‘If you approach the Ninth Symphony, with Beethoven’s stated tempos in your DNA ― your very way of breathing and thinking the music ― but then allow flexibility of time (tempo rubato) to express the spiritual freedom, the daring and, the deep emotion that this music portrays, you can bring these two worlds together,’ he explains. “I am extremely excited by this idea. If we can pull it off on the world stage of Carnegie Hall, it could be of real value for musicians and audiences alike.’

When Zander made his recording with the Philharmonia, he says, he set out to provide as accurate a representation of Beethoven’s speeds and dynamic contrasts as possible.

I didn’t really care whether people agreed or liked what they heard, because I had a job to do ― to follow Beethoven’s instructions with total devotion. For these upcoming performances, I will be imagining Beethoven sitting at the piano, and try to channel his unfettered abandon. My hope is that people will love and be moved, as I am, by every single bar of this monumental masterpiece.

Readers can grab more words and music from Zander’s Legacy Website.

Movement I comparisons:

Movement III comparisons:

1 Comment »

1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thanks for this essay.

    Seems worth taking the trip to NYC for this momentous event. Especially since the Boston concert is sold out.

    Comment by Kristine Lessard — February 16, 2023 at 11:50 am

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