Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (Choral)

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Symphony No. 9 (Choral)
PERFORMER: Twyla Robinson (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), John MacMaster (tenor), Gerald Finley (bass); London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Bernard Haitink


This is the latest instalment in the live Beethoven symphony series conducted by Bernard Haitink in the Barbican last year. Though basically a traditionally-minded conductor, working here with a modern symphony orchestra that doesn’t contain any period or reproduction period instruments, Haitink has demonstrated that he has learned a lot from those conductors who have embraced ‘authentic’ styles of performance over the last thirty years.

The lessons emerge in the phrasing, often curter than it used to be, in the restrained use of string vibrato, and in a general tendency not to go in for broad tempos. That latter feature is most conspicuous here in the slow third movement, which moves along at a pace few conductors would have employed fifty years ago. Yet it never sounds hurried, and the dramatic brass interruptions towards its close have an appropriately apocalyptic ring.

The extraordinarily vivid recording, in which the basses are caught to stupendous effect – especially in their passages of recitative as they reject the first three movements at the opening of the fourth before welcoming the ‘Joy’ theme – adds hugely to the effect. And yet is it all quite momentous enough?

For someone who hears in Furtwängler’s 1951 performance at Bayreuth a historic occasion, the Ninth needs to make you feel that after such an account nothing can be the same again. Haitink never quite achieves that effect, for all his impressiveness and insight. Those who insist on a stereo version will do very well with Abbado’s account with the Berlin Philharmonic. Michael Tanner