Guest contributor, Ateş Orga

‘Good fellow! You need not change places with anyone; remain what you are; that is the best thing’ – Karl, Beethoven’s nephew, 11 April 1824, Conversation Book 61.

Fifty-four years ago marked the bicentenary of Beethoven’s birth and Otto Klemperer’s swansong symphony cycle in the Royal Festival Hall. A tribute, the Daily Mail reported, ‘as valuable in its own way as Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation‘. ‘The message is here left for us to divine: objectivity and architecture are all’ (Alan Blyth, The Times). Tuesday 30 June 1970, 8pm. New Philharmonia, leader Emanuel Hurwitz. New Philharmonia Chorus, chorus master Wilhelm Pitz. A pharaonic Ninth Symphony, Brucknerian in pace. Granite forces (antiphonal violins, eight double basses, doubled woodwind and strengthened brass, Wagner-Mahler-Weingartner in the melding). Soloists – Teresa Zylis-Gara, Janet Baker, George Shirley, Theo Adam – placed behind the orchestra, with the chorus in situ from the start. Slow. 81 minutes. A sense of the evening survives in a grainy BBC telecast https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1069170223448696. In the hall the impact was another matter. Awed, I sat in the stalls conscious of the values and philosophies of another age, another world, taking me over. On the rostrum an old man, minimalist in his gestures, who’d been a protégé of Mahler before the First World War, fled Nazi Germany before the Second, and been black-listed in the 1940 Lexicon of Jews in Music for ‘the deliberate distortion of German masterpieces’. Robert Simpson’s programme notes illumined Beethoven’s Olympian mastery. I’d already worked with Hans Gál on the symphonies and Arthur Hutchings on the Ninth, yet it was Simpson’s imagination and allusions which impacted the more lastingly – remaining with me still. (Previously he’d produced James Loughran’s LSO Beethoven series for the BBC/EBU broadcast between January and April 1970, a revelatory encounter introducing us to cleaner texts, original intentions – the Scherzo of the Fifth Symphony – and leaner instrumental forces, ‘performed with an orchestra of the size
Beethoven knew’ (https://www.colinscolumn.com/many-happy-returns-to-conductor-james-loughran-89-today/).

The Ninth was premiered in Vienna two hundred years ago – Friday 7 May 1824. A pair of bicentenary webcasts from Germany together with a high-profile Wiener Philharmoniker broadcast from the Musikverein celebrated the occasion. The latter, under Riccardo Muti (on the day, review https://www.colinscolumn.com/200-jahre-neunte-symphonie-beethovens-choral-ninth-symphony-vienna-philharmonic-conducted-by-riccardo-muti-live-relay-on-osterreich-1-oe1-orf-at/), reverted to a  slower, more patrician style of interpretation, often beautiful and moulded, the developmental passages characteristically Muti-esque, yet elsewhere (the Scherzo’s trio for instance) less iconically phrased than Klemperer, whose haunting 1970 time continuum nurtured his players to ‘speak’, reflect and punctuate meaningfully. Muti’s reading, omitting the Scherzo’s second repeat, ran out at 76 minutes, compared with his superior September 2014 Chicago account at 77 and his 1988 Philadelphia recording at 72, both those, however, including the repeat. Leading into the first movement’s fortissimo reprise (Simpson’s vision of a fiery nebula, the sky ‘blazing from horizon to horizon’), his reversion to the first edition’s timpani quavers rather than the semiquavers of the autograph (preferred, more dramatically, in his earlier days) struck me as regressive.  Dimensions away from, say, Barenboim’s 70-minute West-Eastern Divan Prom in 2012 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HljSXSm6v9M (strengthened forces, eight basses, Scherzo’s second repeat cut plus moderated trio alla Klemperer), dips in voltage proved ultimately a de-energising factor.

The Ninth was first heard in the Theater am Kärntnertor, demolished in the 1870s. Seeking a  hall of hypothetically comparable acoustics, Martin Haselböck and his Orchester Wiener Akademie took their innovative ‘Resound Beethoven’ project – ‘original sound at original venues’ – to the Historische Stadthalle in Wuppertal, a magnificently restored ‘shoebox’ venue (opened  in July 1900 with a festival including Richard Strauss among the conductors) that survived the RAF bombings of 1943 which destroyed around 40% of the city. The programme (7 May https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMlbEHBkLsQ) was as inevitable as it was original: a recreation of the 1824 proceedings, opening with the Consecration of the House Overture and culminating in the Ninth, with three ‘Hymns’ – Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei from the Missa solemnis – in between. The Orchester Wiener Akademie is a strong period-instrument band including some familiar mainstream personnel in the ranks. But with ‘natural’ horns and trumpets in the equation, imperfect intonation, and the timbral vagaries of open and stopped notes go with the territory. (The exposed fourth horn solo of the Ninth’s Adagio worries even the best ‘valve’ practitioners.) Little in this concert survived entirely unscathed, yet, aiming high whatever the risks, there was a freshness and dynamic energy, a grittiness, an honesty of workmanship, that was persuasive and involving. Haselböck’s platform layout was to be expected, resisting any approximation of the Theater am Kärntnertor’s admired but boldly new orchestral seating arrangements inaugurated in September 1821 (Music in Art, Vol 34: 1/2, Spring–Fall 2009). Antiphonal violins, five basses to the right, no reinforcement of woodwind or brass – despite Conversation Book entries showing an extra second Harmonie having been booked forty-eight hours before the premiere (late 18th/early 19th century Harmonie ensembles routinely comprising oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns in pairs). Less anticipated was his positioning of the choir below and in front of the orchestra. Current thinking conjectures that with the chorus in the opera pit – likely ‘facing half-forward, so as to be able to watch the conductor from an angle’ (Theodore Albrecht, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: Rehearsing and Performing Its 1824 Premiere, Boydell Press, February 2024) – this in all probability was what Beethoven and his audience would have experienced (Balthasar Wigand’s familiar watercolour of the 1808 University of Vienna performance of Haydn’s Creation pictured the practice). Andrew Manze ventured something similar in Rotterdam in 2020 (review https://www.colinscolumn.com/new-year-delectables/).

A brisk, baton-less quest. 63 minutes. Allegro ma non troppo – quavered timpani retransition. Scherzo with second repeat, its racing tumult and the hammering anvil leaps and fortissimo thunder of the kettledrums evoking Czerny’s description of the premiere with ‘the whole house [moved] to stormy, involuntary interruptions of applause’. An Adagio disinclined to dwell: twelve minutes against Furtwängler’s twenty, Celibidache’s/Muti’s eighteen, or Klemperer’s seventeen. Edgy rasps of brass tone. Finale – urgent double bass recitatives in the introduction, in keeping with the first edition’s prescriptive French marking: ‘Selon le caractère d’un Recitativ mais in tempo’ (According to the character of a Recitative but in tempo). On either side of the podium a solo quartet – Chen Reiss, Sara Fulgoni, Michael Schade, Florian Boesch – more given to vibrato than anticipated. The WDR Rundfunkchor in lusty form. In the HIP stakes, Laurence Equilbey’s December 2020 Paris performance with the Insula Orchestra honouring the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth (La Seine Musicale, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xET5RKqk_po&t=2602s) set an authoritative contemporary benchmark (excising the Scherzo’s second repeat notwithstanding), including experimenting with the four movements contextualised sonically through generic 19th century platform strategies – Erfurt, Dresden, Leipzig, Vienna. A = 430. Giovanini Antonini’s fiery, uncompromisingly driven Kammerorchester Basel reading (Gstaad 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1u15B5d7flg&t=7, the subsequent Sony recording adding the Scherzo’s second repeat) was likewise about provocative markers. Similarly Jordi Savall’s 2021 Le Concert des Nations recording, a splendidly infused landscape flagging the notion of the Ninth’s DNA originating more from the Seventh Symphony than Missa solemnis. In such company, Haselböck’s take was a people’s homage, sincere and resolute.

Unalloyed fulfilment informed Alan Gilbert’s Ninth from Hamburg (3 May). Gilbert has the ideal measure of the work – as we knew eight years ago (December 2016, towards the end of his tenure with the New York Philharmonic) when he gave a high status account with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the choral forces incorporating Leipzig’s traditional junge Mädchen element (the red-dressed GewandhausKinderchor) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctOL0daD0VA. His latest outing, with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra (Hamburg International Music Festival, 3 May https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pA0atsoLuio, journeyed the Elysian Fields gloriously. Pliable tempos, inter-communicative phrasing, space to breathe, tautly judged textures, power and poetry in sublime marriage. Characterful orchestral playing. A choral contribution Von Herzen – Zu Herzen gehn (Rundfunkchor Berlin), by heart (as in Leipzig), the hope of the world – ‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder’ – combating its destruction. In one gentleman of the ranks, spectrally incarnate, Beethoven – the ‘Moor’, the ‘Grand Mogul’ of Habsburg Vienna, where ‘the German was related in blood to the Slavic, the Hungarian, the Spanish, the Italian, the French, the Flemish’ (Zweig). A blended, unpushed solo quartet – Susanna Philips, Gerhild Romberger, Maximilian Schmitt, Michael Nagy.  Absorbing details abounded. For one (drums), the first movement’s (holograph) musket-fire (reinforcing the specialness of Beethoven’s way declaring his recapitulations) and the Scherzo’s pulverising cannon shots (both repeats), Matthias Kelemen yielding nothing to Equilby’s Koen Plaetinck. For another, the finale’s recall of the symphony’s opening motif balanced at face value rather than adjusted – pianissimo first violins (quiet) coalescing wraith-like against sustained covering pianissimo woodwind and horns (louder). Respecting page and precedent, the B-flat trumpet entry before the tenor’s variante militaire was its customary recessed self, integrated within the ensemble rather than allotted the foreground  of Mengelberg’s spotlit here-now, gone-the-next ‘solo’ in his 1938 and 1940 Concertgebouw recordings, a ‘battle’ image, in combination with contrabassoon and ‘Turkish’ percussion, not followed by others (though Muti – reminiscent of Fricsay [1958], Bernstein [visually cuing the moment in Vienna ’79 and Berlin ’89], Svetlanov [Tokyo 1995], and more recently Vasily Petrenko [Vienna 2019] – fractionally upped the dynamic beyond the norm). (Worth pondering that possibly two members of the Theater am Kärntnertor’s presumed orchestra in 1824 were field and court trumpeters, projection rather than reticence typically being their comfort zone.)

‘There’s something frankly terrifying about touching this monument,’ Gilbert confided in 2013, having, as he put it, ‘learnt’ the Ninth through his years at the New York Philharmonic. Come Hamburg – antiphonal violins, six basses to the left, timpani and percussion to the right, soloists seated behind the orchestra fronting the choir – he crafted a 62-minute performance where rightness of action was paramount. A noble triumph paired with the radically different. In 2013, the US premiere of Turnage’s Frieze, referencing the Ninth and Klimt’s Secessionist Beethoven Frieze. This time, with Dominique Horwitz speaker, in Brahms’s city, Hamburg – site of the Neuengamme camp set up in 1938, ‘among the worst of the concentration camps in [Third Reich] Germany’ (National Archives, WO 309/1592) – Schoenberg’s documentary cantata A Survivor from Warsaw (1947, male chorus, workaday dressed, singing from the aisle). ‘The aesthetic and musical manifesto of our epoch’ (Luigi Nono). Endings into beginnings, seedlings into oaks, human resilience, was the spirit of the night. Delivered without pretension or hyperbole.

[Not edited for house-style – Colin]