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Exuberant and Eternal: Beethoven’s 9th


Raphaël Pichon (Sam Brewer photo)

Conductor Raphaël Pichon possesses a knack for the daring and dramatic. His bold direction reveals an uncommon verve from even the most familiar score. And it helps that he often stages his performances in unusual venues. Ensemble Pygmalion, which he regularly leads, produced an interactive Brahms’s Requiem at a submarine base in 2021.

The emotive power Pichon elicits from the music also matches precisely what happens on a conventional stage. When he first came to Boston to lead the Handel and Haydn Society last season, he presided over a semi-staged production of Mozart‘s Marriage of Figaro [see BMInt review HERE] that still lingers in memory for its incandescence. His work is so often deserving of hype that, when H&H sought to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the premiere of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 this past weekend, the French conductor seemed ideal for the job.

Yet for all its seismic tension, Beethoven’s Ninth remains one of those works that retains few surpirses. But then again, Pichon is not the average conductor. Leading with sweep and Technicolor flourish, he revealed the Ninth can still be a source of evergreen freshness and vitality.

Pichon achieved that feat through quick tempos that allowed for Beethoven’s hammering syncopations to surge like an electric charge. The opening Allegro coursed with incisive rhythm. If the sonority lacked its usual enveloping warmth, the bold colors Pichon conjured from the period instruments cast this music more as a fiery argument than contemplative discussion. Winds and strings didn’t mix so much as crush together, though with details emerging clearly.

The conductor’s disinclination to push and pull the tempo also allowed for the Scherzo to resound with outright force. And the sounds he drew from the players even mirrored his dynamic podium presence. Wide, waving gestures and leaping downbeats generated biting vitality that carried into the more lyrical Trio, where the cellos imbued the phrase with congenial warmth.

Soloists Adriana González, soprano; Emily D’Angelo, mezzo-soprano; Matthew Newlin, tenor; and Kyle Ketelsen, bass-baritone (Sam Brewe photo)

But the Adagio revealed that Pichon and the orchestra could also elicit tender resonance over the long range. There, silver-toned violas complemented the dark basses. Pichon here too opted for a fleet tempo that made everything flow with tasteful—if uncharacteristic—balletic grace.

Leaning into those extremes of urgency and solace only enhanced the finale’s culminating power. Cello and basses interjected the quotations from the previous movements with assurance. When they introduced the theme immortalizing Schiller’s ode: “To Joy,” they did so as if from a haunting distance.

The music thereafter only grew more and more intense. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen’s recitative sounded with clarion tone, like a bold voice against the storm. The rest of the vocal quartet—soprano Adriana González, mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo, and tenor Matthew Newlin—achieved a rare radiant blend when they joined him in the “Freude, schöner Götterfunken.”

But the true heroes of this performance were the singers of the chorus, made up of H+H regulars and its Youth Choruses’ Chamber Choir. Together they sang with percussive articulations that rang down to every “t.” Yet their whispers were just as powerful as their roars; “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” echoed mysteriously in the packed hall.

Elsewhere, Pichon and musicians displayed all of Beethoven’s requisite humor. The Turkish march teemed with impish glee; the ensuing fugue danced with joyful exuberance. The key takeaway from this performance: Though joy may be fleeting, music continues to seek the deepest eternity.

Aaron Keebaugh’s work has been featured in The Musical Times, Corymbus, The Classical Review, Early Music America, BBC Radio 3, and the Arts Fuse, for which he writes regularly about classical music. A musicologist, Aaron teaches at North Shore Community College in Danvers and Lynn.


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

  1. We attended the Friday and agree with every comment you make. I left Symphony Hall once again astounded at the difference between listening to a recording and hearing music live. With all due respect to Mr. Cohen, I had hoped that Mr Pinchon would be the new leader. There seems to be great chemistry between the band and him.

    Comment by RCarle — March 18, 2024 at 6:53 pm

  2. In this performance, which the audience received with enormous enthusiasm, I disliked what the review describes as “the conductor’s disinclination to push and pull the tempo.” The absence of rubato in the first three movements robbed the piece of much of its emotional depth. The playing and singing were outstanding, but I was never so unmoved by the Ninth.

    Comment by Rob — March 19, 2024 at 9:46 am

  3. Yet another “fleet” (if ever there was an overused word that ought to be banned from the lexicon) period performance of Beethoven lauded as if it were something novel, when the HIP cabal has had a stranglehold on Beethoven symphonic performances for at least 30 years. Such unimaginative homogeneity has been ruinous for the classical music world as understandably bored listeners have been abandoning it in droves, or never becoming interested in it in the first place. Much of the blame for this sorry state of affairs should be laid squarely on the shoulders of critics like Mr. Keebaugh, who have been instrumental in instituting and mandating adherence to HIP orthodoxy.

    Comment by Gabriel Parra Blessing — March 20, 2024 at 5:25 pm

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