Most music-lovers – doubtless all devotees of Beethoven – are likely to have their favorite Ninth… one that either "gets to the heart of the music", is "the most compelling", or uses period instruments – or does not. Why? Such an "ambitious" and innovative work is surely not only just too complex for one interpretation ever to meet every listening need; but also unlikely ever actually to lend itself to a single interpretation. Not that choosing a recording is always and only a question of "best fit" (with a pre-arranged set of criteria). Still less should we have to squirrel a CD away for repeated listening as if there are no others. This latest offering from Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent, the Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra and soloists (of whom Ingeborg Danz and David Wilson-Johnson deserve special mention) is best seen as making yet another valid and happy contribution to the collective project of bringing one of the greatest symphonies ever written to our attention; and doing so in such a way that we actively look forward to repeated listening and ideally derive something new (or at least something different) at each hearing.
It's a measured recording, full of very welcome acumen on its conductor's part, of depth, precision and of sheer good nature. It's from these qualities in Herreweghe's conception of it that the performance derives its impact and atmosphere. This is in contrast to the classic accounts from the middle of the last century by the likes of Toscanini and Furtwängler. They might be described as starting out by having something to prove: the iconic place in the repertoire of the work. And then going all out to prove it – with an admittedly wholly legitimate cache of techniques and insights. Herreweghe's account, on the other hand, has a delightful freshness. There are moments when you truly could be hearing the symphony for the first time… the lusciousness of the slow movement; the relationship between the tempi of the second movement and the very hushed opening of the first (which you are here somehow encouraged to appreciate retrospectively); and the way the climaxes are dealt with in the finale.
One way in which Herreweghe achieves this vibrancy is by respecting and gently exposing the separate sections of the orchestra… the strings at the start, the woodwind in the middle and the brass towards the end of the finale, for example. Specifically, listen to the pinpoint accuracy of the timps at the start of the Turkish march. He then makes such precision a model on which to build his sense of the work's own architecture: if each sonic experience can be seen successfully to make its own way in the world, then each movement, each section within each movement, is clearly due its own respect. Which implies that every aspect of the symphony was written to some (larger and broader) purpose – which we can know and share. And this without unduly emphasizing individual phrasing or passages. By the end of the work, you are acutely aware of its own logic.
In other words, your first hearing suggests more of a relaxed and paced sense of what Beethoven achieved. Less histrionic or clamoring. This does not imply lack of bravura or an inability to move us. Just that we are moved because of what's inside the music, not because of Herreweghe's perception of it. True, the chorus has emphasized meticulousness over romanticism. But as a result they sound more like accomplished and sensitive people expounding Schiller's sentiments than professional communicators. One might venture to suggest that this is more soundly in the spirit in which the Ninth was first performed (with Ignaz Umlauf famously conducting from the wings as the totally deaf Beethoven apparently flailed and wailed). Has Herreweghe thus convinced us that Beethoven actually had more of a grip on his own music than we traditionally think?
The performance was recorded in Antwerp in October last year. The acoustic is more warm than sparkling. The SACD has no hint of sharpness (although some will find the percussion in the final bars a little too "crisp") and a pleasing spaciousness. The booklet that comes with the disk contains mostly background information on the symphony with brief biographical sketches of the performers; some of Herreweghe's own views on the music might have been welcome.
If you want mere sinew and spectacle, you won't find them in this account from Herreweghe. If you want depth, subtlety but depth and subtlety born of a considered and honest-to-goodness (though far from staid) comprehension of Beethoven's world, intention and achievement, then this is certainly a recording to be looked at very seriously. Its vision is no more indispensable than that of any other of the 250+ recordings of the Ninth currently available. But no less so, either.
Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.