Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven: Symphony No. 9
WORKS: Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: Erin Wall (soprano), Kendall Gladen (mezzo-soprano), William Burden (tenor), Nathan Berg (bass-baritone); San Francisco Symphony Chorus; San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas


Broadly speaking there are two ways of approaching ‘the Ninth’ (significant that it is still referred to in that way, despite the greatness of other composers’ Ninths, including Bruckner’s, Mahler’s and Schubert’s). The first is traditional among German conductors and reached its apogee in Furtwängler’s account (of which there are 12 versions available). Deriving from Wagner’s great essay on the work, and probably drawing on his performances of it, that line of interpretation takes the Ninth to be the summit of the symphony, climaxing in the last movement with its assertion of faith in the brotherhood of Man and the existence of a benign divinity. The second approach views the Ninth in its musical and historical context as just another symphony, though maybe among the greatest. From this perspective, the last movement becomes questionable. That is the approach of, say, John Eliot Gardiner and Roger Norrington, and of most contemporary conductors.

Michael Tilson Thomas seems not to have decided. This is a spacious account, with an expansive and lovely slow movement, and a rapturous conclusion that puts one in mind of the ‘affirmation’ approach. Yet there are long stretches where Tilson Thomas seems more at home with the modern, ‘purely musical’ view. By the end of this superbly played account, I felt as if I were leaping back and forth between two interpretative approaches. Perhaps that is because I am so committed to the traditional German approach.


Michael Tanner