By Geoffrey Simon
Chapel Hill, NC: Having collectively held its breath throughout each of the Ninth Symphony’s four movements, the audience at the University of North Carolina’s sold-out Memorial Hall was on its feet with applause and cheers within seconds of Sir John Eliot Gardiner‘s final downbeat/cutoff of the famous closing movement’s peroration.
It is well known that Ludwig van Beethoven was profoundly deaf by the time he took part in the direction of the first performance of his Ninth Symphony in 1824. The sounds created by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir were surely closer to what Beethoven’s inner ear had conceived than were those of that premiere, with its amateur chorus and under-rehearsed orchestra.
The program opened with the seldom-heard Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, Beethoven’s 1815 setting of two poems by Goethe. (While usually translated as “Calm sea and prosperous voyage,” the titles are more idiomatically rendered as “Becalmed sea and fortunate [or lucky] journey.”) The deathly quiet of the windless ocean (Todesstille) was evoked in the opening pianissimo bars, the strings’ vibrato-less and slowly-bowed notes matched by the choir’s sotto voce narrative. With no break between the two sections of this mini-cantata, the becalmed ship is stirred by a wind of rolling eighth notes as Beethoven’s musical painting shows us the waters parting as the ship’s prow cleaves them and leads to the journey’s now-fortunate end. The performance was perfection, with orchestra and chorus precise in intonation and rich in the Romantic emotions which characterize much of Beethoven’s later music.
Volumes have been written about this Ninth Symphony; this is not the place to discuss the work itself. Like other truly great music such as Bach’s B-Minor Mass, the Ninth works in more than one conception. Gardiner, at the forefront of the movement to reclaim the performance practices of earlier ages through use of “period instruments” and attention to historical musicology, lets us hear Beethoven’s works more as the composer might have heard them. This does not negate the larger-scaled interpretations of many 20th-century conductors, with larger performing forces in larger halls than those used by Beethoven; we can experience both approaches and choose which of them best speaks to us.That said, this night’s music making was as fine a performance, or better, than any other you are likely to hear unless you take “und glückliche Fahrt” to Carnegie Hall for Gardiner’s next concert on this tour. Two features alone raised this Ninth above others: (1) the four excellent soloists* sang, when called for, as an ensemble rather than as four singers operating in “anything you can sing, I can sing louder!” mode; (2) the chorus, in declaiming the “Ode to Joy” principal melody, phrased it more as it was first introduced by the ‘cellos, basses and the bass soloist, instead of singing it as if Beethoven had marked each note with a marcato accent (he didn’t) . Gardiner’s superb conducting, forceful but never overly dramatic, brought out the apocalyptic despair of the opening movement, the scherzo’s “raging against the night” of that despair, and the utterly sublime acceptance of the Adagio before launching into the last movement with its “terror chords,” its reminders of the first three movements, and its vision of a humanity which can put aside all that has gone before, seeking its Creator “above the canopy of stars.”
Using instruments either dating from Beethoven’s time or made like them, the woodwinds were heard with wonderful clarity, never overpowered by the strings, which Gardiner deployed in the pre-modern-orchestra tradition, the second violins on the conductor’s right, the ‘cellos on his left between the first violins and the violas. The timpani, with natural heads instead of modern plastic heads, were powerful when necessary, but without the boom-box quality of sound which so often requires dampening lest it obscure the other musical lines. The natural horns sparkled brightly but never with the larger, broader sound of the more modern French horn. With this orchestra, Gardiner did not have to alter Beethoven’s scoring in the second movement, as conductors such as Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, Toscanini, and Szell did in order to rectify what they heard as an imbalance of winds vis-à-vis strings. The Monteverdi Choir sang from memory and, although outnumbered 64 to 35 by the orchestra, managed to balance the instrumental forces in all but the most fortissimo passages. (While we do not know the exact number, Beethoven is said to have used between 80 and 120 singers in the 1824 premiere.)
As the audience filed out after the performance, I overheard a gentleman say to a UNC student, “This will be one of those concerts that you will remember for the rest of your life.” He was right. Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” text contains the lines “Über’m Sternenzelt / Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen” (“Above the stars’ canopy / a loving father must dwell”). Congratulations to Sir John Eliot Gardiner, his orchestra, his choir, and his vocal soloists for taking his audience along as they dwelt, for a space, above the stars.
*The soloists were Elizabeth Meister, soprano, Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano, Michael Spyres, tenor, and Matthew Rose, bass.
Note: The 11/17 Carnegie Hall program was broadcast and streamed live by WQXR.