July 13, 2004
Beethoven's Ninth is great after all

There's a new season of Proms starting this Friday. Last year I went to a prom, and heard Esa Pekka Salonen conduct a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony which combined being note perfect with being completely boring. In fact it was the most boring performance of a Beethoven symphony I have ever heard. While it was happening I thought: is it just me, or is this very boring? Then, next morning, I read the critics, and they found it very boring too. So critics do have their uses.

However, ever since that boring performance, I have had something of a phobia about this piece. Perhaps Beethoven's Ninth Symphony itself is boring, I found myself saying. So those critics didn't do a complete job for me. I have listened to the occasional CD of this piece since then, but you know CDs. They all have a tendency to be note perfect and boring too. With a lot of music note perfect is good. But with Beethoven's Ninth it means you aren't trying.

TennstedtBeeth9.jpgAnd then, today (yesterday by the clock), I finally experienced the cure, in the form of this fabulous BBC recording of a live – and how! – performance of this might work conducted by the late Klaus Tennstedt on September 13th 1985, also at a Prom.

This performance is everything that the Salonen performance was not. Tennstedt makes everyone play and sing as if their lives depended on it, and every note means everything. I put it on after breakfast just to hear what it sounded like and an hour later I was conducting the finale as if my life depended on it. For once, all that solo singing at the end didn't sound absurd, with the tenor Robert Tear sounding especially fine to my ears.

This grump didn't like it, and moans about the accoustics. I thought the accoustics only added to the drama of it all.

This guy, on the other hands, seems to have liked it a lot:

Voici la présentation des sept dernières parutions. Surprise majeure, avec une exceptionnelle 9e Symphonie de Beethoven par Klaus Tennstedt, avec le London Philharmonic le 13 septembre 1985 et, en solistes, Mari Anne Häggander, Alfreda Hodgson, Robert Tear et Gwynne Howell. Il s'agit d'un concert bouleversant, à peine entaché par quelques flottements orchestraux dans les 2e et 3e mouvements, où tout converge vers un finale électrique, avec des chanteurs galvanisés par la baguette de Tennstedt …

My French is very approximate and I'm not sure what those "flottements orchestraux" were in the second and third movements. But isn't it good to know that in France they conduct their symphony orchestras with baguettes?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:03 AM
Category: Classical music