Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (Choral)

Rebecca Evans, Patricia Bardon, Robert Murray, Derek Welton; Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra/Benjamin Zander (Brattle Media)

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Beethoven Symphony No. 9 (Choral)
Rebecca Evans (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Derek Welton (bass- baritone); Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra/Benjamin Zander
Brattle Media 610877733781 218 mins (3 discs)

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Aside from conducting, there’s nothing Benjamin Zander likes better than talking. On disc 2 and 3 of this set he holds forth compellingly about the more controversial aspects of his performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. The main thrust of his argument is that the Symphony’s often contested metronome markings must be scrupulously observed. Those markings were written in a notebook by Karl van Beethoven, while his deaf uncle either wrestled with the metronome or pounded away on the piano. The potential for mishaps was considerable, and for the scherzo’s trio Karl jotted down a figure for each half-bar that is impossibly slow. Benjamin Zander suggests that it was supposed to refer not to a half-bar, but to a whole bar. That, however, produces a reading that sounds terribly garbled – as it does in this performance. More likely is that Karl simply got the figure wrong.

Given that he’s such a stickler for textual fidelity, it’s curious to find Zander filling out Beethoven’s timpani part in the slow movement’s climactic fanfares, arguing that the fixed pitches of the instruments of the time didn’t allow him to use them throughout the passages in question. But Beethoven actually turned their limitations to his advantage, and when they do enter they add emphasis to the end of the fanfares. In any case, if you’re going to start ‘modernising’ Beethoven’s writing, where are you going to stop? For all its controversial nature, Zander’s performance ends up being rather pedestrian, and generally lacking in mystery, warmth and exultation.

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Misha Donat