Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (CD review)

Also, a discussion of the work by the conductor. Rebecca Evans, Patricia Bardon, Robert Murray, Derek Welton, Philharmonia Chorus; Benjamin Zander, Philharmonia Orchestra. Brattle Media 2018 (3-CD set).

First, let me one thing clear: I don't think any conductor purposely sets out to produce a bad performance. Some of our greatest conductors have been criticized for their idiosyncrasies: Stokowski, Klemperer, Karajan, Toscanini. Yet the record catalogues are filled with conductors who do the opposite and take the safe route, creating bland recordings that sound like almost everyone else's. I say this because Maestro Benjamin Zander had his fair share of criticism some years ago when he first recorded the Beethoven Ninth using Beethoven's own, rather zippy metronome tempos, and I have no doubt he'll come in for more such criticism for this second such realization. Whether you like the interpretation or hate it, however, know that Maestro Zander is giving it his best shot at providing what he considers a fresh and refreshing approach to the subject matter.

OK, so if you'll recall, when Philips and Sony developed the compact disc back in the early Eighties, they decided on a storage limit of about seventy-five minutes because that was the average length of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. Well, Zander's New Philharmonia performance, using Beethoven's own metronome markings, clocks in at just over fifty-eight minutes. Of course, not everyone agrees that Beethoven's own metronome was entirely accurate or that Beethoven actually knew how to use it, but fifty-eight minutes? That's faster than most conductors take the score even when they're following the tempo markings precisely. For instance, Roger Norrington in his period-instruments reading comes in almost four minutes longer than Zander.

The thing is, as I said, Maestro Zander had already used this approach with the Beethoven Ninth. In his IMP Masters recording with the Boston Philharmonic twenty-odd years earlier, he did almost the same thing, his performance clocking in at just slightly under fifty-eight minutes, no more than a few seconds different from here. Frankly, I'm not sure what the point is in adhering slavishly to Beethoven's tempo markings in the first place, and I'm not sure why Zander felt it necessary to do it all over again in a second recording. In any case, we have what we have.

Benjamin Zander
Interestingly, it was just last year that I reviewed a similarly peppy reading of the Ninth with David Bernard and his Park Avenue Chamber Symphony on the Recursive Classics label. Bernard also claimed to follow Beethoven's original tempos, but his rendition seems less rushed than Zander's (and, in fact, is slower by some seven minutes). Zander, on the other hand, appears hell-bent-for-leather almost throughout, perhaps hoping to gain a measure of notoriety by being the fastest Ninth on record. I don't know.

Anyway, Ludwig van Beethoven composed his Symphony No. 9 in D minor between 1822 and 1824, and it would be his final completed symphony. Its most prominent feature, of course, is the use of a vocal movement--soloists and chorus--for the finale (and, thus, its nickname "The Choral Symphony"). It's a monumental work, the choral finale preceded by an Allegro, Scherzo, and Adagio.

Under Zander the first movement Allegro ma non troppo is robust in the extreme and flashes by in a hurry. Perhaps it's a matter of the metronome marking and the tempo designation being somewhat in conflict. The second movement Scherzo is, if anything, the most normal part of Zander's proceedings. I found his pace for it satisfying, though not particularly imaginative. Next, we have the third movement Adagio, which I'm sure Beethoven meant to be lyrical and sensitive. Instead it seems rather lacking in such qualities because of Mr. Zander's insistence upon rushing through it. He, of course, claims he is doing things exactly as Beethoven intended and that it is only long-standing tradition that has given us lengthier, more-solemn interpretations. Fair enough, but where's the beauty in that?

Then we come to the concluding choral movement (the familiar "Ode to Joy"), the moment we've all been waiting for. Here again we get Maestro Zander fairly racing through the pages, only this time the singers have to keep up. Even though they mostly do, they sound a bit breathless at times, too. Although there is no question Zander's realization has its thrilling moments, they tend to overshadow the composer's objective here, for the music to be above all joyous.

So there you have it: a Ninth Symphony for people in a hurry. Maestro Zander seems so sincere and so dedicated to his tempo proposition that it's hard not to like the product. But that is, indeed, my case. I found it only intermittently interesting, but mostly just fast and fussy. The conductor appears to spend the bulk of his time adhering to the letter of the score while missing much of its spirit. While it can be exciting, to be sure, it appears to lack heart, feeling, affection. OK, I know that Mr. Zander would say it is his love of the work that has driven him to stick so closely to the printed page; however, that may not help the listener to like the reading any better.

In addition to the symphony, Maestro Zander includes a two-and-a-half hour discussion of the music, along with musical examples, which takes up two bonus discs. If you remember Zander's discussions of the Mahler symphonies for Telarc, you'll get the idea. Some listeners will no doubt find his extensive commentary enlightening and instructional, while others, like myself, may find it more than a bit long-winded. His primary objective appears to be to convince his audience that his interpretation is not only valid but revelatory and imperative and far more accurate than any others. The discussion, a lecture really, seems to me a little too didactic to be entirely satisfying or engaging.

Producers Elaine Marton and David St. George and engineer Robert Friedrich recorded the symphony at Watford Colosseum, London, in March 2017. The sound is appropriately dynamic, a tad soft but well imaged. Bass and treble extensions seem pretty good, while midrange definition is only average. Solo voices are clear and distinct; choral voices are slightly less sharp and frequently a tad bright and forward.

The CD will be available to purchase on July 16th (the release date) on Amazon, iTunes/Apple Music, and Spotify.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa