An old friend revisited

· Sep 26, 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 the original scores. The esteemed German publishing house Barenreiter of Kassel uncovered Beethoven’s personal orchestration and performance directions. The composer’s original metronome markings were also discovered, and are far faster than 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 with 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 time for each symphony.

Thanks to digital recording, the harmonizing instrumental middle voices of instruments like oboe and horn, boost timbres not as clear in older recordings. More interesting is Zinman’s teasing out of these 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 more 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 much of the difficult syncopations of the strings underneath the “Shepherd’s Song” melody, but such is the price of experimentation.

An important experiment is made with the climax of the Ninth. The original notebooks indicate that Beethoven wanted a dramatic pause late in the final movement. However, he was persuaded before the premiere to remove the pause. In this CD, there is one track of the 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, there are almost forty different CD sets of the cycle of Nine Symphonies available, but this new interpretation is a blockbuster. It is a more upbeat version that makes it easier for us all to enjoy and understand the great soul of Ludwig van Beethoven better. Costing less than $25 for the whole set, it is a steal.


This article was published Sep 26, 2001 at 7:00 am and last updated Sep 26, 2001 at 7:00 am


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