United Kingdom Beethoven: Ivona Sobotka (soprano), Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Florian Boesch (baritone), London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 12.2.2020. (CC)
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9, ‘Choral’
This early evening concert in the LSO’s ‘Half Six Fix’ series was preceded by a wonderful spoken introduction by Sir Simon, which included references to significant conductors he had discussed the Ninth with, including Sanderling, Giulini and Karajan. His speech included comparisons between the Beethoven Ninth and Everest and the like. Rattle then brought forth a shattering performance of this great edifice. In the Beethoven 250 year, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: it is impossible to overdose on the works of the Master.
Rattle also spoke of the importance of a well-balanced group of soloists who could tell a story; and this was certainly the best-balanced quartet I have encountered. I admired the purity of Ivona Sobotka, the strength of Anna Stéphany (who made the part far more secure and interesting than usual), the clarion tones of Robert Murray and the glorious declamations of Florian Boesch.
Rattle has a long history with this work; he has recorded it with both the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. There are points of insight galore, highlighting of scoring that remind us that no matter how often one hears the Beethoven symphonies, they still retain the capacity to surprise.
This ‘story’ began with the most turbulent of first movements, distinguished not only by force but also by the clarity of the lines. Rattle knows to give the music time to relax and dares to do so; the music can stretch, yet the larger picture is never for a second neglected, with the result that climaxes are cataclysmic in impact. And yet even in those moments when the soul shouts, one can still hear the careful balancing of textures. The interaction of larger harmonic processes and fine detailing, the clear result of long rehearsal, paid huge dividends. The entire orchestra seemed impeccably focused (complaints of ragged ensemble tended towards zero), nowhere more so than in the razor-sharp accents of the scherzo. The subtleties of scoring, woodwind colour ‘nudging’ first beats, remained, and how beautifully pastoral was the Trio, with Rachael Gough’s bassoon the model of buoyant staccato.
The sheer beauty of the Adagio molto e cantabile was beautifully managed, the tempo just right to imply Bernstein-like stasis on the minims but without resorting to that conductor’s extremes of tempo. There was not too much contrast in speed terms between the opening Adagio molto and the Andante moderato, the contrast beautifully achieved rather through texture and light/dark contrast.
The grounding double-basses towards the close of the third movement gave a launch-pad for the Urschrei of the finale’s opening. The arc of this last movement ensured the final choral peroration was inherent from the very beginning, the first, hushed low string statement of the ‘An die Freude’ theme pregnant with its withheld power. That ending was a hard-won glow, as the grit of the furiously imitative passages indicated. The chorus, impeccably trained by Simon Halsey, was radiant, truly triumphant over Beethoven’s demands. The cheers at the end (and how quiet the audience had been until then) were testament to the emotions this piece in an exceptional performance can deliver.
The edition Rattle was using was not specified, but some subtle alterations (ties one expected that were not there in the fugal passages, for example) implied deep consideration.
Whether the two video screens, one on either side of the stage, aided or hindered will, I am sure, be a heated point of discussion. It does seem to rather detract; watching Sir Simon from the back and seeing his facial expressions simultaneously is slightly odd. There were clearly limited camera angles, as the same people tended to get disproportionate screen time. It did offer advantages, though: everyone could see it was indeed the fourth horn who played the solos in the third movement (superbly, too: Jonathan Maloney doing a fine, musical job).
Whether one agrees with the screens or not, the real issue was the music; and Beethoven Nine is only rarely heard as gloriously as this.
This Sunday (February 16), the Ninth will be repeated, coupled with Berg’s Lulu Suite.