LSO/MTT – Beethoven 9 (8 November)

Elegischer Gesang, Op.118
Opferlied, Op.121b
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Janice Watson (soprano)
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor)
Peter Rose (bass)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 8 November, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

In his current visit to the LSO, Michael Tilson Thomas has effectively conducted two choral symphonies. A week ago he placed Bruckner’s Te Deum as a conclusion to the composer’s unfinished Ninth Symphony (the dying Bruckner’s suggestion) – the concert (2 November, reviewed on this site) a success in terms of allowing the two works an indivisibility of belonging. While one could express reservations over MTT’s way with the symphony, the Te Deum was exhilarating. So too, here, the choral finale of the Beethoven, yet it seemed to stand alone rather than be a resolution, something not helped by having the four solo singers (and a couple of percussionists) enter just before the movement started, which allowed those who like to applaud at inappropriate moments to do just that (the Bruckner audience had been far more understanding). Surely the better place to come in would have been before the Adagio while the orchestra was re-tuning.

Tilson Thomas’s view of the symphony was equally curious – non-momentous and anti-heroic; each movement concentrated yet with little to project forward to the all-men-shall-be-brothers ’message’ of the finale.

This performance was, however, absorbing, and one must express regret that LSO Live microphones were not in evidence. The 66-minute Ninth plus the two late-added choral numbers would have fitted one CD very easily (two concerts and a dress rehearsal providing more than enough ’takes’).

What Tilson Thomas created here was a very musical Ninth, one moving apace in terms of construction, one meticulously sounded – not least in the string parts – and with scrupulous attention to detail; if trumpets are staccato and bassoons legato, then one heard the distinction in perfect balance. What was missing was a sense of apocalypse, that the first movement is a torrent of creation. This doesn’t have to be achieved by speed – indeed, Tilson Thomas was quite speedy if not ’historically’ on the (dubiously fast) metronome mark. Come the torrential climax, Tilson Thomas repeated his Bruckner faux pas by signalling such elemental unleashing with something’s-about-to-happen tempo modulations and a rhetorical pause. The Scherzo, shorn of the all-important second repeat, was lithe and dancing, the Trio elfin, swift and articulate.

No mention was made of which edition Tilson Thomas was favouring; if the pristine Bärenreiter, the conductor didn’t appear editorially constrained, nor was he especially concerned with authentic touches – there was a good dose of vibrato – but come the slow movement, he entered a different world. Here was a throwback to the Beethoven adagios of old – slow and meaningful, although the soundworld was chaste; the surprise was Tilson Thomas’s complete disregard for the Adagio-Andante contrasts. It was all adagio, radiantly played to be sure, but with the threat of meandering not far away.

So we had had a concentrated, rather too ’complete’ first movement, a telescoped scherzo, and a lightly turned if spacious slow movement. Self-contained movements, tuning, soloists’ entries and applause had rather lost the ’need’ for the ground-breaking finale, its opening dissonance too carefully placed, the ’Ode to Joy’ theme a little too sweet.

Yet, like the preceding movements, one was absorbed. The London Symphony Chorus was, as ever, superb in unanimity and demonstration, the solo quartet rode vocal difficulties with ease, and Tilson Thomas projected the whole with appropriate joy.

Peter Rose’s mellifluous entry with “friends, not these sounds” was a fine piece of singing, even if the prior ’sounds’ did not need much assuaging. Anthony Dean Griffey’s splendidly ringing tones in the march – percussion lightly touched-in (thankfully) – again confirmed his excellence, and the two ladies (both replacements, for Christine Goerke and Alice Coote, who were similarly replaced in the Bruckner concert) met Beethoven’s demands head-on, Janice Watson finding her top notes exquisitely.

So a Beethoven 9 that neither quite added up nor seemed as ’significant’ as it can or should. The two choral entrées were a thoughtful addition, and introduced by MTT, the deeply beautiful Elegiac Song should be heard more often, here touchingly rendered, while the Opferlied, with Karen Cargill a warmly enunciating mezzo, suggested a Magic Flute-like ceremonial, which was intriguing.

Reservations about this Choral are numerous, yet the performance left its mark. If overall trajectory and internal relationships were not its strongest point, there radiated from Michael Tilson Thomas a generosity of expression and a musical discernment that was vividly reciprocated by all the performers. On such ambiguities are memories made!

  • Concert repeated on 9 November at 7.30
  • LSO

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