, July 2009
I reviewed the CD issue of this performance of the Beethoven Ninth and I equivocated over whether to endorse the performance on its musical merits alone. I have since spent a considerable amount of time listening to Daniel Barenboim’s set of the Beethoven symphonies (with the Berlin Staatskapelle, Warner Classics), as well as reading some of his thoughts concerning Beethoven and interpretation, and I have developed a better understanding of his approach to this music. I’m glad to be able to write again about this concert.
Of course, the primary advantage of the DVD over the CD is the visual element: it is easy to become engrossed in the music-making of this attractive and wonderfully accomplished group of young musicians; their concentration, eyes riveted on the conductor, produces not only consummate musicianship but brings smiles of contentment to Barenboim—this is the look of a man who sees, per aspera ad astra, his efforts and struggles fully vindicated.
As for the music itself, both Overture and Symphony are conceived on a dramatically Romantic scale. The Overture has gained two minutes since the recording in Berlin in 1999, but those two minutes have produced an even more brooding and melancholy Adagio section that builds through tentative, nearly motionless measures to the brilliant Allegro. The principal flute and bassoon are especially notable in this opening piece.
The performance of the Ninth is characterized by moderate—some might say extremely moderate—tempos in three of the four movements. I’ve come to appreciate, though, that this temperate attitude toward forward motion produces a coherent and balanced architectonic structure of the utmost clarity. Care has been taken with the seating of the players as well, first violins to conductor’s left, seconds to his right, the violas and cellos in the center, and basses to the left rear; the horns are seated to the right, near the trumpets and trombones, winds filling out the middle. This arrangement makes even the subtlest inner voice audible.
Perhaps most important of all in this Symphony is the effectiveness of the inter-relatedness of the tempos to the interpretation. The very quick Scherzo—molto vivace—provides a highly precise contrast to the intense drama of the first movement and imbues the Adagio with an even deeper sense of calm. The orchestra in this third movement is at its most impressive, as the players manage flawlessly sustained phrases at molto adagio tempo, and with no loss of the singing line, particularly in the violins and principal flute and oboe.
The finale is grand indeed, paced as before for maximum clarity and impact. The cellos and basses are wondrously muted for the introduction of the “Freude” theme, which gradually builds to its climax by the full orchestra. The chorus of the State Opera is relatively small but very effective, and the vocal quartet is among the best in recent years.
The video production is unfussy, moving intelligently between close-ups and the (relatively rare) long shot; there is also the occasional candid moment: the hand-held camera focuses on one of the cellists during the finale, who casts a quick glance and smile at her stalker, and then resumes concentration on the music at hand. The usual audio options are available, but for bonus material there is only a picture gallery and selection of trailers for other DVDs. No matter: the concert is the attraction here. This orchestra of Palestinian and Israeli young people that spends a summer shedding preconceptions and antipathies while studying music together has produced a Beethoven Ninth of substance and power; Barenboim has not just added to his impressive discography, he has put into practice an idea borne of politics but ultimately concerned with humanity.