Benjamin Zander discusses and conducts Beethoven’s Choral Symphony – Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra [Brattle Media]

3 of 5 stars

Symphony No.9 in D-minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Rebecca Evans (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor) & Derek Welton (bass-baritone)

Philharmonia Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Benjamin Zander

Recorded 10-12 March 2017 in Watford Colosseum, Hertfordshire, England

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: July 2018
QZ8LQ1700005 (3 CDs)
Duration: 59 minutes (performance)
2 hours 40 minutes (discussion)



According to Benjamin Zander, the performance tradition which has obtained with respect to that cornerstone of the orchestral repertoire, Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony, has been essentially wrong, and that is attributable to the failure by conductors to observe Beethoven’s metronome markings. His discussion of the issues involved and his reasoning for adopting a literal interpretation of those indications (essentially, nothing less than instructions in Zander’s eyes) are expounded in a lengthy discussion on this release’s two supplementary discs. But he sets out his case eloquently, with a minimum of jargon or technical terms so that it is perfectly possible to follow the argument without any specialist knowledge of music theory. It would aid accessibility, however, if Zander had mentioned bar numbers when referring to the text of the score so that listeners who are following with it do not have to search around for the passages under discussion, and he does not go through the Symphony in order.

Zander’s comprehensive and detailed analysis of all fourteen of Beethoven’s metronome markings – and his reading of the Symphony overall – is predicated on the point that the correct tempo for the execution of his music was of the utmost importance to the composer. The arguments and evidence which Zander marshals are too extensive to outline here, but suffice to say that, whatever one thinks – or rather feels – about the result, his discussion about the work’s textual and historical contexts will reward and enlighten anybody who cares about this masterpiece.

It is fascinating, for instance, to hear how Beethoven worked through the score with his nephew, Karl, to provide metronome markings for its publication, and that the latter seems to have inserted them incorrectly in a couple of instances. These have been rectified in recent editions of the Symphony, although many conductors and musicians evidently still work with the old ones.

By observing Beethoven’s tempo indications literally, the Symphony as realised is brisker than usual (at least in traditional performances) and Zander explains that it took a fair amount of rehearsal time with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus in order to render the music accurately and convincingly in the recording. The Trio section of the Scherzo (at 116 semibreves a minute, correcting the mistake of old scores which take over Karl’s erroneous insertion in the fair copy of 116 minims) is now quite a sprint – in line with other similar passages in Beethoven’s ‘late’ period, Zander argues. In order to achieve that, the reinterpretation of bars 404-411 leading up to that section from the Scherzo (dotted minim=116) is revelatory and thrilling, as the crotchets get faster in order to accommodate logically and seamlessly the sudden switch in meter – i.e. the =116 bars of three crotchets of the Scherzo become bars of four crotchets in the Trio – and thereby launch the latter section without any stuttering or incongruous gear changes. At the restored speed, however, the Trio sounds rather comically accelerated, as though on fast-forward mode.

The Adagio is also particularly swift – very much a lyrical song in motion, especially with the arabesque decoration by the violins in the third variation – rather than any solemn meditation on mystical things, and the tenor solo of the Finale, “Froh, wie seine Sonnen”, is brought in line with the similar wind-band marches which Beethoven had composed in the decade or so before the Symphony, sung with almost breathless wonder by Robert Murray, though almost at the risk of failing to keep up as it sometimes sounds. In a few instances, however, Zander’s precise following of Beethoven’s tempos entails a slowing down from received readings, such as the double fugue on “Seid umschlungen Millionen” (at bar 655) and in the Symphony’s very final bars, where conductors often despatch the coda with ecstatic abandon.

Essentially, then, it is not exactly that the resulting performance is simply faster, but that the range of speeds from movement to movement, and between sections, is less extreme. Each section, individually, is revivified with a new dynamic momentum and freshness, as though stripping back the accumulated layers of varnish and dirt to reveal the litheness and urgency of Beethoven’s inspiration. Orchestra and Chorus make a convincing case for the work in this guise by sustaining the tempos with consistent virtuosity, whilst transcending mere observance of the beat to create innate musicality from the notes. The bassoonist and oboist execute the speedy lines of the Scherzo’s Trio with accuracy and aplomb, and there is a vibrant edge to the trumpets’ timbre which provides extra bite and urgency to such moments as the wild call-to-attention of the fanfares at the opening of the Finale. Alongside that, the strings are fluid and lean, rather than lushly dense, and the choral passages remain lucid but fervent, as well as the four vocal soloists in their slower passage from bars 831 to 842, which benefits here by not dragging as it can do on occasions. Derek Welton sounds a little cowed in heralding the choral Finale, as both his recitative and the earlier instrumental versions at the beginning of that movement are rather hasty and impetuous, instead of exactly mimicking the nuances of human speech.

Nevertheless, there arises the question about the wider validity or desirability of adopting such a literalist approach to the work, apparently preserving it somewhat as though it is an archaeological exhibit. Doubtless some will be enthralled by the performance at these speeds, and individual moments are persuasive, but over the course of fifty-eight minutes the Symphony’s course becomes relentless and wearing. Perhaps in the fast-paced twenty-first century that enables the Symphony to take on a certain emotional veracity or relevance, but for that very reason audiences are likely to require more contrast and deliberate imputed gravitas in order to arrest attention and divert it from everyday conventions (the strict habits and customs of which Schiller’s poem speaks) in favour of elevated ideas about the universal community of humankind. Listening practices have surely become so largely altered and diversified – if not necessarily desensitised – over the two centuries since the Ninth’s premiere that it cannot be a foregone conclusion that hearers will be won around – afresh, or for a first time – by simply reclaiming the conditions of the composition’s creation.

Even if the matter is one of fidelity to Beethoven’s markings, there is surely an inconsistency – or at best, an oversight – on Zander’s part in not considering any of the other aspects that may constitute an ‘authentic’ interpretation of Beethoven’s intentions or practices, in terms of instrumental timbre, vibrato, rubato, musical interpretation, pitch, number of performers and so on; in other words, matters which the historically-informed practitioners have been considering for several decades. In using the Philharmonia Orchestra, Zander does not seem to be overly concerned with those matters, and nowhere does he explain whether or not they are also important in realising a valid Ninth. In fairness, Zander does state that his intention is not to assert what is the or a correct way of performing the Symphony, and pronounce a judgement against previous interpretations which vary from his own; he regards his vision of the work (which has grown out of a long period of performing, researching and reflection) as an act of homage to Beethoven’s achievement, and as creating another lens through which to view it, rather than replacing previous readings.

However, he overstates the novelty of his case somewhat by concentrating only on one aspect of the work’s realisation, apparently at the expense of those other matters of authenticity. He refers to Roger Norrington’s groundbreaking interpretation of this (and Beethoven’s other Symphonies) by contrasting how even those readings got some of the tempos wrong by using older, uncorrected editions of the music or through misinterpretation of what was meant. It is telling that when staking a claim to his general overhaul of the Symphony he cites the notably weighty accounts by Furtwängler (though not specifying any particular one) and Leonard Bernstein’s on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall, though Zander acknowledges that the very particular occasion of the latter called for something profound, and that the undeniable magic of Furtwängler’s approach derived from a certain Romantic tradition and a personal, idiomatic philosophy of musical performance. Klemperer is cited in a specific instance for the slowness of his speed, but that was a well-known idiosyncrasy on that conductor’s part in his later years in any case. (Testament SBT1177 preserves a live 1957 account of the Ninth from Klemperer, with the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall, which is not slow at all, seventy minutes, with, like Zander, all repeats observed in the Scherzo and Trio, and an altogether extraordinary experience – Ed.)

It would surely have been more instructive to compare some recent recordings reflecting typical conditions in the concert hall and studio in the last two or three decades. Established orchestras and seasoned conductors generally fall in line with something of the older approach, naturally. But some, benefitting from Urtext editions, have already come close to realising the composer’s intentions, such as David Zinman’s 1999 account with the Tonhalle Orchestra. The timings of the movements in Zinman’s performance are remarkably similar to those of Zander’s, as are the relative contrasts in speeds adopted, though the Scherzo’s Trio is not so frenetic. But, overall, Zinman finds a more engaging trade-off between the rigours of near-adherence to the metronome markings and making musical and dramatic sense of the cut-and-thrust of Beethoven’s multi-faceted symphonic argument. Zander promotes the discovery from Beethoven’s fair copy of the work for the Royal Philharmonic Society (by whom it was originally commissioned) that the striking modulation on the third and final “vor Gott” (bars 329-330) is to be interpreted not with a sustained fortissimo, but with an equally dramatic diminuendo. But he takes no account of Zinman’s discovery of a general pause at the chorus’s exhortation to “Brüder” at bar 747.

Another apparent inconsistency is that Zander takes a modicum of liberty in re-interpreting the score when circumstances vaguely permit. In that third variation of the Adagio’s principal theme, he ignores Beethoven’s express request that this be taken not at the slightly faster speed of crotchet = 63 of the immediately preceding, contrasting Andante section (Beethoven marks ‘at the same tempo’) but reverts to the crotchet = 60 tempo for the previous appearances of this Adagio principal theme, as it is apparently too difficult for the violins to manage the semiquaver arabesques comfortably. In bars 619 to 626 of the Finale, he reinforces the stirring and syncopated viola line which leaps around over two octaves with the addition of horns; the fanfares near the end of the Adagio are underpinned on all their chords with relevant notes by pedal timpani, being easily re-tuned to fit all harmonies, as opposed to the fixed pitches of the instruments that were available to Beethoven in 1824; and the violent storm at the centre of the first movement (from bar 301) is bolstered by the addition of a piano (though not explicitly audible in the recording as such) based upon circumstantial evidence that this is what happened at the premiere. These are musically sound interventions, but if Zander is permitted this creative flexibility, why should not other conductors be permitted theirs in other respects?

Zander’s musicological analysis and argument merit and reward careful attention, as they offer valid and stimulating insights; but, ultimately, justification for Zander’s vision of this symphonic masterpiece rests upon more than merely technical considerations but must appeal to what works musically and emotionally within the parameters (rather than instructions or recipe) laid out by Beethoven. Listeners either jaded through overfamiliarity, or too easily satisfied with one interpretative style will have their minds and ears opened afresh, and Zander’s thoughts challenge us to re-examine our own about the Symphony. But whether his interpretation, in the round, succeeds in making the visceral impact upon minds and hearts to which the breadth of Beethoven’s vision clearly aspires is another matter, and there the value of this recording is probably limited to enriching or qualifying received experiences and preferences rather than replacing them. The booklet contains texts and translation along with a detailed general background of the Symphony’s composition and first performance, along with a description of its music, making it an informative release.

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