A VALIANT EFFORT TO CHANGE THE WAY WE LISTEN TO BEETHOVEN’S NINTH:
CRITICAL COMMENTARY ON A NEW RECORDING WITH THE
PHILHARMONIA ORCHESTRA, CHORUS AND SOLOISTS (REBECCA EVANS,
PATRICIA BARDON, ROBERT MURRAY AND DEREK WELTON]
CONDUCTED BY BENJAMIN ZANDER (3-Brattle Media cds)
By Lewis M. Smoley
For time in memoriam, musicians, musicologists and music critics have fought over the wisdom of strictly applying Beethoven’s metronome markings (MMs). Arguments against even trying to be faithful to Beethoven’s MMs range from casual generalizations, such as “Beethoven didn’t know how to use this then new device” to the suggestion that his MMs don’t make sense or are impracticable.
Benjamin Zander, music director of the Boston Philharmonic and the Boston Youth Philharmonic, and a frequent guest conductor of the Philharmonia and other orchestras, has taken the stance in favor of Beethoven’s markings. He did so in a revelatory reading of Beethoven’s Fifth issued on Telarc several years ago, and now has taken on the Ninth, an even greater challenge. Several of its fourteen MMs are highly controversial, often ignored or compromised away by some of the great conductors of the past century. In two discs that accompany the performance, Maestro Zander gives a thorough, intelligent analysis of the reasons why he has championed application of all of Beethoven’s MMs. On the disc that contains the performance, the musicians splendidly realize them no matter how unaccustomed they may have been in doing so.
Listening to the two discs of commentary, it becomes immediately clear that Zander has spent considerable time and effort delving into the issue. He goes through all fourteen markings individually, indicating how they have been dealt with previously and revealing the sometimes fascinating facts about their generation, categorizing them by how controversial they have been during the modern era. Zander gives numerous musical examples to show what passages sound like when played at Beethoven’s designated MMs and, conversely, how they are often treated by other conductors. We hear passages conducted by Furtwängler, Toscanini, von Karajan, Bernstein and many others. These other versions sound “right” to us because we have come to accept them as well as the contention that Beethoven simply didn’t know how to use the metronome or that his metronome was somehow faulty. These contentions certainly need to be challenged, as Zander does in this cd set.
Zander provides us with a chance to experience the Ninth the way Beethoven apparently intended it to be performed. Yet he makes it equally clear that it is not his purpose to proffer a “definitive” Ninth but to be as faithful as possible to Beethoven’s intentions. Zander contends that he does not mean in any way to denigrate those conductors who have not followed Beethoven’s tempo markings to the letter and he willingly admits that in some instances live and/or recorded performances of these conductors can be profoundly moving and affecting. For Zander, the importance of adhering to Beethoven’s tempo markings is not merely a matter of technical accuracy but by doing so, he believes, even greater beauty and excitement in the music is revealed.
Zander’s recorded performance of the Ninth achieves virtually all of his goals in regard to tempi. That is not to say that he forces tempi into rigid confines without any flexibility. A master of rubato, Zander knows how to utilize this performance technique idiomatically. For example, although the forceful climax of the principal theme of the first movement (from bar 17) seems ever so slightly pressed, it is still consistent with the main tempo, and generates greater urgency as well as dynamic thrust. Similar instances elsewhere could be cited, but in each case slightly more motion never causes a loss of touch with the main tempo.
Undoubtedly, it is the tempo of the second movement’s trio section that is the most shocking here. As Zander explains, an uncorrected error in the list of metronome markings that were transcribed for the publisher caused the new accelerated tempo to be notated twice as slowly as Beethoven apparently intended. According to Zander, here’s what happens: The Scherzo and the central section Trio are marked to be played at the same tempo – MM116. The first nine notes of the new tempo are unarguably a climactic flourish to conclude the Scherzo, since they are also used to end the entire movement. Out of that fortissimo final D, the ‘sweet, soft’ Trio emerges without any gap. Now, leading into that new Presto pace are eight bars with the indication to get faster (stringendo); there will now be 4 notes in the bar instead of the 3 notes that were in each bar of the Scherzo. If the tempo of 116 is duplicated for the Presto, as Beethoven clearly indicates, the four quarter notes per bar will now be going exceedingly fast—indeed, at the very limit of playability.
Most conductors, not believing Beethoven’s instruction, interrupt the accelerated pace arrived at and settle for a tempo for the Presto which is neither fish nor fowl—well below any sense of Presto, nor related to the tempo of the Scherzo.” Zander takes Beethoven at his word and continues to accelerate right into the Presto, which causes the breakneck speed of the emerging Trio to make it sound like a totally new piece. This tempo for the Trio has always been considered unplayable. Notwithstanding, the Philharmonians accomplish it, for the very first time, with panache.
At Beethoven’s marked tempi, the Adagio movement does not become sluggishly tiresome as it sometimes can be. It has often been pointed out that the almost imperceptible difference between the metronome markings for the adagio theme
(quarter note = 60) and the andante moderato theme (quarter note = 63) is nonsensical. How can an Adagio be only three points on the metronome slower than an Andante? Surely this is proof positive that Beethoven’s metronome markings should be disregarded! But when Zander points out that the Adagio tempo is to be felt in 2 (half-note = 30), and that Beethoven only used the 60 designation because his metronome didn’t have anything lower than 50, it all makes sense.
Zander explains (and demonstrates in the performance) that when the impulses in the bar are reduced to 2, the melody can soar like an operatic aria that comports perfectly with the flow of the harmonic rhythm. That enables him to achieve a
perfect balance between the movement’s two main themes, capturing the songlike quality of the first and the rhapsodic character of the second.
Naturally, the extensive finale contains numerous passages that are affected by applying Beethoven’s original tempo markings. The familiar “Joy” theme is more fluid and song-like than usual. The opening is paced as a true presto and the Recitatives maintain the excitement and drive that Beethoven must have intended by his marking: mais in tempo – meaning at the original Presto.
One of the most magnificent passages in the finale occurs just before the march section, when the chorus calls out “vor Gott” (“to G-d”) three times with monumental power. The third time Beethoven indicates that the chord is to be held in a fermata molto tenuto. From the manuscript copy in London that Beethoven had checked over minutely before the Vienna premiere for the Society that had commissioned the work, Zander discovered that the composer changed his mind and decided that that last chord should end on a diminuendo to piano, an effect that has, to my knowledge, never been heard before in modern times. This astonishing effect gives the conclusion of this section a heavenly aura befitting the text. As Zander suggests, staying with Beethoven’s directions here gives us an entirely new way of listening to this stirring passage.
Correcting an error in the metronome markings for the March section leads to a truly startling result. A ceremonial march tempo is set for the entrance of the tenor, awe-struck by the beauty of the stars (with Robert Murray singing piano for once, as indicated) and then with hair-raising speed for the triplet fugato “battle” section. As the music builds to a magnificent rendition of the Joy theme for full orchestra and chorus, the thrilling pace yields a truly exhilarating performance. The final prestissimo is all too often raced through with such uncontrolled frenzy that it sounds almost like a blur. Zander, following the composer’s instructions, shows what a fast march should sound like – with plenty of energy and providing a stirring conclusion to one of the greatest symphonies ever written.
Controversy can be both thought-provoking and exciting. Lack of substantive music education in public schools, the overwhelming pervasiveness of pop music in our daily lives, and the weakening of significant music criticism in the daily press have all contributed to both a dumbing-down and lack of interest in anything more than the musical experience itself. With this recording of the Ninth and the two discs of explanation, Maestro Zander has offered a stimulus to our often too passive involvement in listening to classical music that should enrich our musical experience of this glorious work and motivate us to become more deeply engaged in interpretation. Of even greater significance is that Zander, the soloists, chorus and orchestra offer a glorious performance, as stirring as it is fascinating.
1st movement, opening
2nd movement, trio
3rd movement, adagio