on 29 August 2010
"The Ninth" has been recorded many times, unsurprising as it's probably the most influential symphony ever composed by anyone. It's been played faster, slower, louder, softer, aggressively, restrained, rhythmically, melodically, in so many ways but, to my ears, never as enthralling as Herbert von Karajan's 1977 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic.
However, in 1999, I saw and heard Sir Simon Rattle's version with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall. I understood why he was announced as the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic because, while he probably wasn't quite Karajan's standard, he was close, and so I didn't expect anyone to reach that level again for a long, long time. But this Barenboim version is not only better than Rattle's interpretation, it's as good as the famous 1977 Karajan recording with the BPO! No, it really is.
Daniel Barenboim has surprised me. His work with the West-Eastern Divan orchestra has been incredible for many reasons but to draw such quality from this orchestra to be able to rival the BPO of the 1970s is extraordinary.
The 1st movement interpretation is good but probably the weakest of the four. Karajan's version is faster, which makes it a more intense, driven experience than this. The use of dynamics is excellent though and the lack of pace is almost covered by the wonderful use of dynamics, hesitation in the right places and expresssive string sounds. But the pace is missing and it needs it.
The 2nd movement is stunning, without doubt the most impressive account of the 'Molto vivace' I have heard on record. Maybe it should be slightly faster at times, but actually it's better because it's that little bit slower. The timpani is felt in your body that little bit more. It's almost like a rock version, which works! Rhymically and dynamically, there is nothing close to this.
The 3rd movement, so easily made boring with the wrong approach, was Karajan's weakest and most conductors do fail to make it interesting. I therefore, expected similar from Barenboim. However, some succeed so perhaps he would, too. But I had only heard one version that I would call emotional - Cyprien Katsaris' performance of the Franz Liszt transcription. It's beautiful but it doesn't make sense. If, like me, you would prefer to hear only the best for every movement, an orchestra could be sacrificed for one piano and then returned for the finale, which would be strange. Now, finally, with the West-Eastern Divan orchestra under Barenboim's helm, that orchestral interpretation with the emotion needed has been put on record.
Finally, the famous "Ode To Joy" melody that drives the captivating 4th movement. It is slower than Karajan's again, and slower than Rattle's, too. But it is as intense as physically possible. Berlin's German State Opera Choir is exceptional of course (they always are!) but Barenboim still deserves a lot of the acclaim because he keeps the tension throughout by holding, and pausing, and racing, and taming all in the right places. Is it as good as the 1977 Karajan BPO recording? Hmmm, probably. Whatever this account will mean in history to others, maybe something special, maybe nothing, all I remember was how I felt when I heard it for the first time.
I wish there was a word to perfectly capture my emotional reaction when the final A's and D notes closed this masterful interpretation of my favourite piece of music, but all I could think at the time, and all I can think of now, is what I breathed out then; an exhausted and surprised, "Wow".
Add. notes: This is a live recording but audience interference (coughing, sneezing, etc) is minimal.