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Hyperion Records

LSO0592 - Beethoven: Symphony No 9
Photography by John Ross.

Recording details: April 2006
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Produced by James Mallinson
Engineered by Jonathan Stokes & Neil Hutchinson
Release date: September 2006
Total duration: 68 minutes 8 seconds

'Enough orchestral punch to knock a listener senseless ... we are caught in the grip of a performance of quite uncommon fervour. Feel the warmth of Finley's opening bass solo, marvel at the open throats of the London Symphony Chorus' (The Times)

'A magnificent performance of the Ninth, done with total commitment under Haitink's inspiring leadership ... with splendid chorus and soloists in full cry, and orchestra in blazing form, all is thrillingly right. Every detail of the ever-astonishing score is given its value in a reading of passionate conviction' (The Sunday Times)

'Simply masterful Beethoven ... capped by a magisterial account of the Ninth Symphony, this is the Beethoven set for our time. Even if you already have umpteen other recordings of these works, you really owe it to yourself to hear this new set. It's a deeply satisfying musical experience' (Chicago Tribune)

Symphony No 9
Molto vivace  [13'50]

Beethoven's Symphony No 9 is a landmark in the history of music, changing the concept of what a symphony could be. The use of solo singers and a chorus in the final movement was revolutionary, and the emotional journey to a glorious vision of a world of love and tolerance paved the way for idealistic symphonies to come.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Friedrich von Schiller’s poem ‘Ode to Joy’ could almost have been calculated to appeal to the idealistic Beethoven. Written in 1785, it lauds the joys of fellowship, the happiness of married life, the wonders of nature and the universe and the eternal mystery of divine love, and as early as 1793 Beethoven was considering setting it as a song. In 1812 he attempted a ‘choral overture’ using parts of the text, but it was not for another decade that he was to find a true home for it when he made it the subject of the extraordinary and revolutionary finale to his Ninth and last symphony, the first ever to include a choral movement.

It was not just accommodating Schiller’s words that took a long time, however. Although the symphony was essentially composed in a ten-month burst between April 1823 and January 1824, there is a case for saying that Beethoven had been writing it for much longer – he had contemplated a D minor symphony as early as 1812, immediately after the completion of the Seventh and Eighth, while some of its musical ideas date back even further. Not that these matters would have concerned the audience at the work’s first performance in Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater Theatre in May 1824; for them the excitement lay in hearing Beethoven’s first new symphony in twelve years, and they lapped it up. At the end the applause was thunderous, and the deaf composer was turned round by the contralto soloist Caroline Unger to see hats and handkerchiefs being waved frantically all over the hall. ‘The whole audience was impressed, crushed by the greatness of your work’, wrote Beethoven’s friend Anton Schindler. Vienna may not have always appreciated Mozart to the full, but it certainly loved Beethoven.

The Ninth is not, strictly speaking, Beethoven’s last symphony – in 1825 he began but failed to complete another – but it is certainly a fitting summation of his mighty contribution to the genre’s history. His achievement had been nothing less than that of bringing about an irreversible transformation in the entire concept of what a symphony is, turning a piece of concert music designed primarily to entertain into a psychological journey in which, over the course of four movements, the listener’s emotions undergo some kind of change. This could be triumph over adversity, as in the death and rebirth of the ‘Eroica’, or a passage from darkness to light as demonstrated in the famous Fifth Symphony. In the Ninth, it is a journey from a bleak and brutal void to a glorious vision of an ideal world of love, tolerance and universal brotherhood.

Certainly the shimmering strings which open the first movement seem to conjure a mood of primaeval emptiness before the music moves on into more combative regions. At the end, a sternly resolute theme emerges from the depths like a clenched fist. The second movement seems straightforwardly joyful with its playful timpani beats (spontaneously applauded at the first performance), its interplay between the violins and its cheeky ending, but there is more than a hint of seriousness underlying it as well. The third movement is unambiguous in intent, however, a sublimely tender and beautiful set of variations on a tune whose deceptively simple hymn-like nature is a Beethoven speciality, above all in ’late-period’ works. And then the finale bursts in, startlingly and radically. At first the orchestra reviews themes from all three earlier movements, with the cellos and basses seeming to debate their worth in melodic phrases which deliberately mimic the style of vocal recitative.

It is as if they are struggling to tell us something, yet it is also a dramatically enhanced continuation of the fragmentary, groping introductions to the finales of two earlier symphonies, the First and the Third. Eventually, though, the orchestra hits on the now-famous folksong-like theme, but after they have played a few variations on it, another upheaval leads to the first human sounds – a bass soloist commanding us all to discard all this in favour of ‘pleasing and more joyful tones’. These words are Beethoven’s, but from here to the end it is Schiller’s message which dominates, and as the voices take over, we hear in the course of further variations on the theme a vision of Elysium that is by turns exultant and awestruck. ‘This gigantic work’, Hans Keller suggested, ‘should convince even the firmest pessimist that mankind’s life has been worthwhile’.

Lindsay Kemp © 2005

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