Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D 944 "The Great"
Review By Max Westler
CD Number: EMI Classics 38382
"Conductors must always bear in mind that the music they perform is even greater than they think it is." I've forgotten who first stated this democratic notion that the work at hand is always larger than the point-of-view of any single interpreter, that no one gets to have the final say. In which case, individual conductors are not competing to produce the definitive interpretation of a score, but are actually secret collaborators exploring its inexhaustible possibilities. This seems especially true when considering the extensive discography of a masterpiece like Schubert's Ninth Symphony: all the truly great versions teach us something different about the music. If for Carlo Maria Guilini the work is a revolutionary score that anticipates the work of Bruckner and Mahler, for George Szell it is at heart a traditional work built on the precedent of Beethoven and Haydn. For Charles Munch, the symphony is a protean surge of kinetic energy; for Sergiu Celibidache, a vast architectural design slowly taking shape. The heaven-storming Furtwangler, the rustic Josef Krips, the Dionysian Solti, Apollonian Boehm, warmhearted Walter, rugged Toscaninni — each of these conductors honors Schubert's creation by revealing all the many things it can be.
Sir Simon Rattle also has an individual view of Schubert, though I'm not sure it honors the composer. Sir Rattle's Schubert isn't capable of carrying a tune — let alone sustaining a singing line. Here is Schubert's Ninth reflected in a fun-house mirror; there's hardly a phrase that isn't distorted beyond recognition. Sir Rattle has always been way too eager to demonstrate his interpretive powers, to arbitrarily impose his will on the scores he conducts, but here his uncanny ability to place the accent on the wrong sylLAble (as we used to say in high school) is perverse. This is the least natural-sounding Schubert I've ever heard.
Of course, there have been highly individual, if not eccentric versions of this music before: Mengelberg, Abendroth, Sinopoli and Harnoncourt, to mention only a few. Though only the Mengelberg deserves an unqualified recommendation, I would still rather be listening to any of those versions than Rattle's because these conductors project a sense of spontaneity and at least pay some fleeting attention to tempo relationships. Typically Sir Rattle's phrasing is self-conscious and affected: you can always hear him thinking. And here he spends so much time and energy hauling details about, his tempos stall and falter. Without that crucial sense of forward momentum, Schubert's "heavenly lengths" become "deadly lengths." Though Rattle's performance clocks in at the same time as Celibidache's (a longer-than-usual 57'), it seems by far the slower. "Celi" makes his slow tempos work so well, sound so natural, that you soon forget you're listening to a "slow" performance. With Rattle, every moment drags leaden boots. By the end of this performance, I felt I'd aged ten years. Usually I would complain that a disc that contains less than sixty minutes of music could have, should have included at least one other composition, but here the want of a filler feels like a blessing.
The sound here is good enough to let you hear just how awful the performance is. As for the playing, I spent a lot of time thinking about the Berlin musicians, who (howsoever regretfully) do indeed give Sir Rattle what he's asking for. But what must it have been like for an orchestra that bears the living memory of Furtwangler, Boehm, Jochum, and Karajan to participate in a performance so glib and superficial? I'd like to think the entire city is feeling a collective sense of buyer's regret over their choice of maestro.
On a personal note, I see no point in continuing to review performances by Sir Rattle. Recent samplings — his Ein Heldenleben, his Brahms First Concerto (with the magnificent Krystian Zimmerman) — suggest he's not growing as an interpretive artist. Wisdom teaches one to accept that which cannot be changed. Besides, life is too short. Like it or not, George Bush will continue to be the President of these United States for another two years. Like it or not, Sir Rattle will continue to produce dreadful performances that publications like The Gramophone then hail as definitive. I happily leave it to others to explain what this says about the present state of musical culture.