Critics, reviewers, and participants are looking at Benjamin Zander’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as performed under his direction by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Philharmonia Chorus at the Royal Festival Hall Saturday, March 18, as a turning point in the history of the piece.
If you weren’t part of the sold out, 2,900-person audience, or one of the more than 230 orchestra musicians or choristers on stage, here’s what you need to know.
Zander, founder and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, has been studying the score of Beethoven’s Ninth for the past 35 years.
He came to realize, over the course of that study, that the way the Ninth has been performed practically since Beethoven’s day has diverged significantly in many aspects from the way the composer originally intended the piece.
Specifically, Zander noted about a dozen places in the score where Beethoven’s tempi have been performed inaccurately – some faster, though most slower – throughout the almost two centuries since the piece was composed.
If you play the piece at the pace Beethoven intended, you get through it in around 58 minutes, not the 65 to 82 minutes that most conductors require.
But the result of Zander’s engagement with the piece isn’t simply about a dry, professorial approach to correcting errors in metronome marks.
As Zander puts it, it’s about “the passion, the vision, the spiritual meaning, the overwhelming impact, and the beauty of the piece.”
The metronome came into existence shortly before Beethoven wrote the Ninth and the composer promptly embraced it as a means of conveying his intentions about how his work was to be performed.
Yet since Beethoven’s death in 1827, most conductors have disregarded the composer’s now very specific pacing for all sorts of reasons, some more rational than others. Zander’s recent interpretation is a return to Beethoven’s original intention.
“Beethoven used the metronome,” Zander explains, “to show us the true meaning of the piece—the shaping of the phrases, the soaring of the lines, the drive and power. In the London concert and recording we made earlier in March, we wanted to do what Beethoven heard inside his own mind, since of course his deafness prevented him from hearing the piece performed.
“We discovered that everything Beethoven asked us to do is possible. This is why the London performance continues to resonate and may well affect the way the Ninth is performed from now on.”
“What I find so compelling,” says Chris Wilkins, a fellow conductor and longtime friend and colleague of Zander’s, “is that behind Zander’s conviction about the correctness of his interpretation is his force of personality and his intention not to do things in a typical or received way—to live beyond convention. That’s very Beethoven-like!
“He’s channeling not just a number on a metronome, but Beethoven’s spirit of defiance in the face of all odds.”
The critics in attendance at the Royal Festival Hall agreed.
Antony Hodgson, reviewing the concert for ClassicalSource.com, wrote that Zander “directed a vivid account of the ‘Choral’ Symphony, which certainly shines new light on the music.”
Another critic, Tim Cumming, wrote, “Under Benjamin Zander’s baton, it’s as if two centuries of varnish, candle wax, and post-Romantic indulgence in mythology have been cleared from the surface to illuminate the depths.”
David St. George, co-producer of the recording, affirms that the latest production was the result of decades of intense study: “What distinguished Ben’s achievement in London was the extraordinary passion and conviction of every moment of the interpretation. It had a kinetic spontaneity, and a rightness, that I have never heard from any conductor who has assayed Beethoven’s tempi.
“The performance that Ben elicited from the orchestra in the slow movement had a magical, ethereal serenity.”
Stewart Young, a South African Beethoven scholar present for the sessions in London, noted: “There were many revelations, but perhaps two stand out with particular vividness for me. The first was the trio section of the scherzo, the bit with the merry oboe tune and prominent solos for horn and bassoon. This section was taken, for the first time in my experience, at a real presto, as the score specifies, exactly at Beethoven’s very quick metronome mark. What emerged was true late Beethoven, exhilarating, not the usual leisurely amble. The other was in the finale, the opening of the tenor solo above a military band, painting the distant stars beyond which ‘a loving father dwells’. Instead of belting it out, as is the norm, he sang it in a rapt, awed piano, absolutely consistent with both text and music.”
The participants in the concert were also amazed by the experience.
Philharmonia Chorus Chairman Richard Harding performed in the concert and called it “a refreshing experience. There was certainly a sense of the symphony unfolding naturally. Some of the speeds in the finale were unfamiliar, but perfectly singable. The engagement of the unusually quiet audience, was particularly impressive. The sense of communication was almost tactile.”
Stefan Bevier, the Chorus Master of the Philharmonia Chorus, said, “This new view of Beethoven’s Ninth will cause everyone to reevaluate the way they perform the piece.”
Fabrizio Falasca, Associate Leader of the Philharmonia Orchestra weighed in via email: “What makes Zander's version historic is the interpretation of this masterpiece outside of the canonical tempi always performed; the strictest compliance with all the detailed dynamic markings left by Beethoven; the variety of phrasing and the accuracy of the dialogue between the various instruments of the orchestra and the voices.”
Not all orchestras possess the technical ability to perform Beethoven’s Ninth at the original tempi, but Zander’s history-making interpretation at the Royal Festival Hall absolutely raises the bar for anyone performing this most beloved piece of the classical repertoire.
What could have easily been a scholarly indulgence instead yielded a performance guided by deep thought and passionate expression, “a scorching, illuminating, and unforgettable encounter,” suggests St. George, “with perhaps the greatest symphony of all.”
Channeling the Ninth’s glorious “Ode to Joy” chorus, Zander describes the experience as a meditation on the rewards of conducting with purpose.
“If you don’t bring joy, love, energy, enthusiasm, and community, you won’t find the spirit of the music. That’s what we accomplished in London.”
In a country where standing ovations are practically nonexistent, the Royal Festival Hall audience rose to their feet to salute a performance that exuded unexpected power and passion. Zander’s gamble was a roaring success.