Beethoven:9 Symphonies by David Zimmerman and the Tonhalle Orchestra

· Sep 13, 2001 Tweet

Living in this world of the quick image, a new look at what is familiar can be challenging. The symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven are a case in point.

Generations of musicians mindful of Beethoven’s tragic life story and in awe of his creativity have tended to play the nine symphonies too slowly and somberly, with an emphasis on heavy chords in the lower registers. While deep notes of Romantic doom fit something like the grinding heavy metal of Black Sabbath, it mutes Beethoven’s glorious music.

Beethoven’s triumphant sense of life and the intentions behind his symphonies were revealed with the recent publication of his original scores. The esteemed German publishing house Barenreiter of Kassel uncovered Beethoven’s personal orchestration and performance directions, as well as his metronome markings. Those of the composer himself are far faster then many interpretations would have you believe.

Maestro David Zinman, who held the conductor’s post at the Baltimore Symphony for more than 15 years, has moved to Zurich to head the Tonhalle Orchestra. In a career that spans over fifty albums, Zinman has worked with everyone from the London Symphony to Yo Yo Ma to James Galway and has shown a willingness to take chances in interpretation.

The faster tempos give us the real Beethoven, joyous in tone, overcoming pain. Zinman’s interpretation is so fast that he shaves at least a minute off of the usual performance times of each symphony.

Thanks to digital recording, the harmonizing middle voices such as oboe and horn boost timbres that were not as clear in older recordings.

More interesting is Zinman’s teasing out of those middle timbres with incredibly subtle control of volume and emphasis.

Emphasizing of the midrange in the Ninth Symphony makes more obvious the thematic light and shade. Even the famous kettle drum passages in the second movement are given a larger part of the music. Interesting as that is, some may prefer the traditional thunderous artillery of drums to this version.

Likewise, the final movement of the Sixth Symphony seems to downplay too much the difficult syncopations of the strings underneath the “Shepherd’s Song” melody, but such is the price of experimentation.

Another important experiment is made of the climax of the Ninth. Original notebooks indicate that Beethoven wanted a dramatic pause late in the final movement. He was, however, persuaded before the premiere to remove that pause. In this CD, there is one track of the Ninth Symphony’s fifth movement played without the pause and one track with the pause. Oddly, the version with the pause is 12 seconds shorter than the one without.

Best of all is how fresh the Fifth Symphony now sounds. Probably the most widely known bit of music in all history, it has suffered from the “Stairway to Heaven” effect ? a great piece of music made irritating by repetition. This time we hear the Fifth fast and loose, and even the opening bars give us more to think about.
Right now, one can buy almost forty different CD sets of the cycle of Nine Symphonies, but this new interpretation is a blockbuster. It is a more upbeat version, making it easier for all of us to enjoy and understand the great soul of Ludwig van Beethoven more completely. And, at less than $25 for the whole set, one can purchase all nine symphonies for little more than a song.


This article was published Sep 13, 2001 at 12:00 am and last updated Sep 13, 2001 at 12:00 am


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