Beethoven's 9th Symphony Reexamined

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has suffered greatly from overexposure and commercial vulgarization. Its "Ode to Joy" finale has been arranged for koto ensemble, for brass band, for scat-singing chorus. It has been shouted out by 50,000 Japanese in an athletic stadium, danced to in a disco-beat abomination. And perhaps worst of all, it has been played "straight," with ever-increasing, ritualistic dullness and purposelessness, by all the world's symphony orchestras and conductors.

About the only thing the Beethoven Ninth has not been subjected to is musicological reexamination, of the sort that the Bach cantatas, Haydn symphonies and Verdi operas have undergone, particularly since the end of World War II.

That has all changed with the appearance of conductor Roger Norrington and his London Classical Players orchestra, which just a few months ago gave us their fresh look at the Beethoven Second and Eighth Symphonies on an Angel compact disc.

But whereas those relatively lightweight works remained comfortingly familiar in sound despite Norrington & Co.'s vivifying touches, the Ninth Symphony from the same source (on Angel 49221, CD) is indeed something quite new--or, perhaps, authentically old.

Get ready for a Ninth different in three of its four movements (the scherzo is exempt from major editorial changes) from any you've heard before.

And not simply because period instruments and smaller than customary forces are employed. What Norrington has done is take the music apart and put it back together again. The listener might question whether the conductor and his co-editors have been too inventive, too intent on toppling old notions. But it is unlikely he will remain totally unmoved by the experience.

We have had other recorded performances just as fast overall as Norrington's: 62 minutes with the usual repeats. But this one is also the slowest on recordings in several instances, most notoriously, as it will surely turn out, in the tenor's marching song in the finale.

At least one listener tired of a proper, traditional Ninth finds this new entry provocative and refreshing.

First, it is informed by a wonderfully alert rhythmicality--every measure is brightly incisive: no smearing of phrases, no lazy articulation.

In his lucid program note, Norrington gives convincing reasons for his choices of tempo (based for the most part on the composer's usually ignored--if not reviled--metronome markings), phrasing and balances. And they are convincingly projected by his accomplished players, a chorus of some 50 voices and light-voiced, agile soloists.

Because the tenor does not have to push to be heard over a huge chorus or to keep up with his conductor, a Mozart-type voice (the kind with which Beethoven was most familiar) can be employed. Here, it's the youthful-sounding Patrick Power.

Soprano Yvonne Kenny is, likewise, the possessor of a true, near-vibratoless instrument, while the bass--Petteri Salomaa--delivers his "Freude" recitative, taken at a terrific clip here, with uncommon verbal point. And because the vocal quartet is actually balanced as an entity and in relation to the chorus, one can, for once, hear the mezzo-soprano, in this instance the admirable Sarah Walker. The Schutz Choir of London sings with bracing vigor and a degree of finesse impossible from the usual stentorian horde.

Just how tedious a traditional, self-consciously "Great" Beethoven Ninth can sound is documented in the recent recording by Sir Georg Solti, his Chicago Symphony and its Margaret Hillis-trained chorus (London 417 800, CD).

It is all very slow, densely textured and ultimately numbing in its lack of tension.

The leather-lunged operatic soloists in the finale--soprano Jessye Norman, mezzo Reinhild Runkel, tenor Robert Schunk, bass Hans Sotin--have their predictable problems with strain, pitch and balance. But enough.

For those not quite ready for Norrington's revisionism, a couple of old-time conductors do prove that custom needn't stale this music completely.

Many listeners are likely to welcome the inexpensive CD reissue of the late Eugen Jochum's shapely and propulsive 1970s recording. His excellent collaborators are the London Symphony Orchestra and LSO Chorus, with a young, unself-conscious Kiri Te Kanawa brightly and accurately surmounting an otherwise mediocre solo ensemble in the finale (Angel Studio 69030).

Conductor Kurt Masur's mellower but by no means sluggish interpretation is in Philips' mid-priced Silver Line reissue series (420 701). Masur leads his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Chorus, with two superior soloists in the quartet: soprano Anna Tomova-Sintow, not as yet afflicted by a pinched or wobbling top, and the ever-elegant tenor Peter Schreier in peak early-1970s form.

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