Review: Benjamin Zander


For all too many years, musicians, musicologists and music critics have fought over the wisdom of strictly applying Beethoven’s metronome markings (M. M’s). Arguments against even trying to be faithful to Beethoven’s M. M.s range from casual generalization (e.g., Beethoven didn’t know how to use this then new device; the M. M.s he applied don’t make practical sense or don’t comport to the verbal directions associated with them) to the alleged contradictions latent in using them faithfully.

Benjamin Zander, music director of the Boston Philharmonic and the Boston Youth Philharmonic, and a frequent guest conductor of the Philharmonia and other orchestras, has taken the unpopular stance of arguing in favor of Beethoven’s markings. He did so in a revelatory reading of Beethoven’s Fifth issued several years ago, and now has taken on the Ninth, an even greater challenge. Many of its fourteen M. M.s are highly controversial, often ignored or compromised away by some of the great conductors of the past century. In two discs that accompany performance on a third, Maestro Zander gives a thorough, intelligent analysis of the reasons why he has champions application of all of Beethoven’s M. M’s. and other tempo markings and how splendidly the Philharmonia musicians realize them no matter how unaccustomed they were to doing so.

Listening to the two discs of commentary, it becomes immediately clear that Zander has spent considerable time and effort delving into the issue. He goes through all fourteen markings individually, indicating how they have been dealt with previously and revealing the historical and sometimes fascinating facts about their generation, categorizing them by how controversial they have been during the modern era. Zander gives numerous musical examples to show what several of the passages that contain these controversial tempos would sound like if played at Beethoven’s metronome markings and, conversely, how they are often treated by other conductors. He recognizes that some of the most satisfying performances have dispensed with many of Beethoven’s M. M.s if they did not comport with the conductor’s vision. As one might expect, we hear passages conducted by Furtwängler, Toscanini, von Karajan, Bernstein and many others, whose interpretive stylistic traits were quite diverse. These other versions sound “right” to us because we have come to accept them as well as the contentions of other conductors that Beethoven simply didn’t know how to use the metronome or committed errors in doing so. These contentions have become hackneyed over the years and certainly need to be challenged, as Zander does in this cd set.

Zander provides us with a chance to experience the Ninth the way Beethoven apparently intended it to be performed. Yet he makes it equally clear that it is not his purpose to proffer a “definitive” Ninth but to be as faithful as possible to Beethoven’s tempo markings. Zander contends that he does not wish to denigrate those conductors who have to followed Beethoven’s tempo markings to the letter. He willingly admits that in some instances these conductors’ recorded performances have been profoundly moving and exciting. For Zander, adherence to Beethoven’s tempo markings result in greater authenticity.

For the most part, Zander’s recorded performance of the Ninth achieves almost all of his goals in regard to tempi. That is not to say that he forces tempi into rigid confines without any flexibility. A master of ‘rubato’, Zander has not only made a study of its application historically, but also knows how to utilize this technique idiomatically. So that although the forceful climax of the principal theme of the first movement (from bar 17) is ever so slightly pressed, it is still consistent with the main tempo, and generates greater urgency as well as dynamic thrust. Similar examples occasionally occur, but in each case slightly more motion never loses touch with the main tempo to which it is applied. Undoubtedly, it is the tempo of the second movement’s trio section that is the most shocking here. As Zander explains, an uncorrected error in the metronome markings caused the tempo to be played twice as slowly as Beethoven apparently intended.

The development of Beethoven interpretation throughout the Romantic Era resulted in the unwarranted assumption that the trio sections in a scherzo movement should be played more slowly than the scherzo subject itself. This was not true during the Classical period, when the trio almost invariably had no individual tempo marking. Beethoven set a slower pace for the trios in his Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, but in none of his other symphonies, including the Ninth. Here four bars before the trio begins, there is a presto tempo marking that serves to introduce the Trio section. Most conductors apply the presto tempo only to these four introductory measures and set a much slower pace for the Trio proper. Zander simply continues with the presto tempo, treating it as the principal tempo for the entire Trio, thus playing it twice as fast as we usually hear it. In the past the considered view was that the Trio weas unplayable at such a tempo. Notwithstanding, the Philharmonians accomplish it splendidly.

At Beethoven’s marked tempi, the Adagio movement does not linger on elongated phrases or become sluggishly tiresome as it sometimes can. The difference between the metronome markings for the two principal subjects (the adagio theme at quarter note = 60 and the andante moderato theme at quarter note = 63) are so close as to be virtually indistinguishable, but, as Zander points out, Beethoven apparently could distinguish the difference and wanted it to be adhered to. One result of using these markings is that the second theme sounds more rhapsodic than we generally experience it.

Naturally, the extensive finale contains numerous passages that are affected by applying Beethoven’s original tempo markings. The familiar theme (which Zander calls the “Joy” theme) is more fluid and song-like than usual. The opening presto is paced more in keeping with Beethoven’s presto markings in other of his works, and not raced through riotously.

One of the most magnificent passages in the finale occurs just before the march section, when the chorus calls out “vor Gott” (“to G-d”) three times with monumental power. The third time Beethoven indicates that the chord is to be held in a fermata molto tenuto. In Beethoven’s manuscript Zander discovered that the composer wanted that last chord to end on a diminuendo to p, an effect that is virtually never applied. Comporting with Beethoven’s unequivocal intentions here gives the conclusion of this section a heavenly aura befitting the text. As Zander suggests, staying with Beethoven’s marking here gives us an entirely new way of listening to this stirring passage.

Correcting an error in the metronome markings for the march section gives it more lift and makes it comport more aptly with a true march tempo. As the music builds to a magnificent rendition of the Joy theme for full orchestra and chorus, the energetic pace yields an exhilarating performance. The final prestissimo is all too often raced through with such uncontrolled frenzy that it sounds almost like a blur. Zander’s more rational approach, which he shows in his commentary to comport with comparable tempo indications in the music, is certainly not as fast as it is often played but still has plenty of energy and provides a stimulating conclusion to one of the greatest symphonies ever written.

Controversy can be both thought-provoking and exciting. In years past the listening public were drawn into disputes between the musical cognoscenti through adventurous music critics, but those days are long gone. Lack of substantive music education in public schools, the overwhelming pervasiveness of pop music in our daily lives and the weakening of significant music criticism in the daily press have all contributed to both a dumbing-down and lack of interest in anything more than the musical experience itself. With this recording of the Ninth, Maestro Zander has offered a stimulus to our often too passive involvement in listening to classical music that should enrich our musical experience of this glorious work and motivate us to become more deeply involved in the various interpretive of music-making that can be the touchstone of a great performance.

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