on 4 November 2003
This, the culmination of Claudio Abbado's most recent Beethoven cycle, is for me one of the truly great performances of the ninth symphony. This is such an innovative and bold approach, I suspect it could take some people by surprise, and not a liitle time to get used to it. But it is worth persisting if that is the case. In the four years since he last recorded the work with the same orchestra, much has changed. In the first and final movements tempi have speeded up and the orchestral forces have been scaled down, producing much more of a historically-informed period instrument sort of sound.And yet there is here a mellow beauty of playing, a gloriously impeccable, seemingly effortless performance, which marries perfectly the classical style with modern instruments. This reading makes for me the likes of Harnoncourt and Zinman, conductors who have attempted the same sort of approach, sound at times brash and almost crude by comparison. Not that they are, but this Abbado performance is so good, it just makes them sound that way, at least to my ears.
At the moment there is in my opinion no-one to touch the Berlin Philharmonic: they make fiendishly difficult high-tempo passages sound easy and also very clear. Their skill is astonishing even by their own historically-high standards. Apart from this symphony, I cannot get enough of their current recordings; the rest of the symphonies in this Beethoven cycle are without peer; I have been likewise stunned by their recent superlative Mahler readings, among others.
The singers and chorus here are top-notch too, the absolute highlight being bass Thomas Quasthoff's entry in the final movement. This knocks me into the back of my chair every time I hear it: surely the most affecting and supremely powerful beginning to the choral part of the ninth ever recorded.
And the recorded sound is an audiophile's dream, crisp, crystal-clear and rich-toned.
This is one of the really great ninths, a serious challenge to those of Furtwangler, Bohm and Karajan. Compared to the latter performances, Abbado's is quite different, but magnificently so.