If there is indeed a Judgment Day, then I suspect the theoreticians and practitioners of the "historically informed performance" movement will have a lot to answer for, especially when it comes to the presentation of Beethoven symphonies. First the "hip" pedants gave us (and are still giving us) uglified Beethoven: "original instrument" performances that feature anorexic strings, puling winds, flaccid horns. What's not to like? These days we're getting downsized Beethoven: the symphonies played on modern instruments, but performed by chamber-sized ensembles (sometimes consisting of thirty musicians or less), all in the effort to reproduce the forces typical of Beethoven's day. But shorn of the tonal richness and power of a full orchestra, the symphonies seem less imposing, less consequential, and certainly less affecting. And worse, the attempt to duplicate "period practice" has produced literal-minded interpretations that give us fast movements that are needlessly rushed and slow movements that are either too tightly drawn or altogether slack. The music is never permitted to breathe, to flow in a natural way. Beethoven's genius ranged far beyond the limitations of the musicians, interpreters (and yes, the instruments) of his day. That's why his music has never lost its appeal. To restore those limitations in the name of "authenticity" suggests the triumph of abstract thinking over plain common sense.
Oddly, one of the first conductors to give us Beethoven performed by a chamber-sized orchestra was Micheal Tilson Thomas: a cycle he recorded with the English Chamber Orchestra back in the 80's. But given the unapologetic power of the present release, he seems to have repented of his former ways. Make no mistake about it. This new recording of the Ninth with his San Francisco Symphony is a big-boned, hot-blooded, rip-snorting, fire-breathing performance that not only blows away the "hip" competition, but that can also stand alongside the "legendary" interpretations of Toscanini and Furtwangler.
Toscanini and Furtwangler, different as they are (in this symphony especially) seem to have provided the template for this performance. Miraculously, MTT is able to strike a balance between the former's concentration and energy and the latter's questing, spiritual resonance. The first movement generates an almost unbearable tension at moderate tempos that preserve its sense of mystery and struggle. The scherzo is febrile, athletic, the trio brimming with Beethoven's roughhouse humor. But for me, the triumph of this performance is the slow movement. "Hip" conductors like John Eliot Gardiner take this greatest of all Beethoven adagios at an insanely fast tempo that completely undermines its emotional impact. MTT is daringly slow here, but he has a sure grasp of structure, and moves us gradually and persuasively to an overwhelming climax. This reverential, hymn-like music truly "sings." In the last movement, orchestra, soloists, and chorus generate a life-affirming swagger that sweeps all before it. MTT captures the martial tread of the music, but also its nobility and tenderness. From first note to last, there's a sense of inevitability to this Ninth: it's an altogether remarkable achievement. So many "hip" performances of this symphony leave you wondering what all the fuss was about. This performance suggests why hearing the Ninth was such a transformative experience for so many later composers — Berlioz, Mahler, and Bruckner among them.
release also confirms MTT's stature as a Beethoven interpreter. Last year's
coruscating performance of the Fifth Symphony was no fluke. As for the recording
itself, if you're familiar with MTT's Mahler series (and you should be),
you'll know what to expect: sound that's commendably clean and detailed,
impressively spacious and with a superb dynamic range, from intimate piano
passages to the stupendous fortissimo
climaxes. Those looking for a modern (or SACD) recording of this great symphony
need look no further. This is a Beethoven Ninth for the ages.