Music whose shock-value is an integral part of its power should not be heard too often, and when it’s plundered and parodied like Beethoven’s Ninth, this holds particularly true: three times a year is enough.
The first time I heard the Ninth this year was with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms, but they robbed it of every shred of its majesty and power. On the other hand, Ricardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester had me enthralled from the first horn-call to the final drum-beat.
John Eliot Gardiner and the London Symphony Orchestra provided my third Ninth, but they prefaced it with an account of Beethoven’s First Symphony which brilliantly highlighted both its debt to Haydn and its bold throwing-off of the 18th-century shackles. This performance represented a rare meld between conductor and orchestra, creating the ‘sprung’ quality of a period band without sacrificing any of the big Beethoven effects. The tempi were fast, and the ornamentation deft; the Minuet seldom sounded more like a Scherzo than it did here, with the syncopations slammed across the bar-lines with absolute precision; eyes shut, you’d have thought the melody in the Andante was played by one single instrument, not the second violins en masse.
And so to the main event, with soprano Rebecca Evans, mezzo Wilke te Brummelstroete, tenor Michael Spyres, and the South African bass Vuyani Mlinde, plus the Monteverdi Choir. The contours of the Ninth’s first movement were not as fastidiously shaped as those of the First, but, both there and in the Scherzo, Gardiner was in whip-cracking form. With the Adagio, however, he missed a trick: as one of the most sublime achievements of Beethoven’s late oeuvre, this should transport us into another world, but Gardiner’s brisk despatch kept it earth-bound.
One of Gardiner’s trade-mark touches in this concert was to put the first and second violins at opposite ends of the stage, the better to bring out Beethoven’s antiphony. So why did he put the four soloists at the back of the stage with the choir? For the full drama of the finale we needed both them and their sound in close-up, but though Mlinde came across loud and clear, the other three were literally drowned by the orchestra in front of them the choir (on superb form) behind. Strange.