Simon Rattle

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

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Interpretations of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, "Choral," range from the heavily Romantic to the spryly Classical, and this uncomfortable duality stems from the work's position on the fault line between those two musical eras. On the one hand, the dominance of German conductors, which lasted well into the 20th century, produced a late Romantic school of thought that favored a profoundly reverent treatment of the work, supported by the quasi-religious expressions in Johann Friedrich von Schiller's An die Freude, which is the text of the ecstatic Finale. On the other, the rise of historically informed practice in the later decades of the 20th century tended to de-emphasize the Romantic mysticism of Schiller's poem and the same impulse in Beethoven's music, stripped away accretions of accepted practice and dogma, and played up the Classicism that still underlies the first three movements (however beyond Classical the Ode to Joy is, by any standard). As a result, modern performances find themselves somewhere on a spectrum between these ways of thinking, and Simon Rattle's live performance with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra finds itself situated closer to the Romantic pole than to the Classical. One could hardly expect the performance to be otherwise, for the VPO has had a long-standing tradition in playing this hallowed work, and whatever changes a conductor may try to introduce to performances necessarily will be small. Furthermore, Rattle is not known as a follower of any early music movement, but that doesn't mean he is unaware of developments in their practices. Indeed, while observing the traditions that have grown up with the Ninth, he takes pains to emphasize details in the orchestration and to give it greater clarity, which are aims of authentic performance practice at base. Even though he doesn't come near the dramatic changes wrought by the likes of John Eliot Gardiner or Roger Norrington, Rattle still prizes transparency, and therefore avoids the thick textures and homogenized ensemble sound that sometimes afflicted old-style Beethoven performances. Connoisseurs of period practice who want their Beethoven revamped and streamlined will not care for Rattle's conservative interpretation, but any mainstream audience will enjoy this recording and appreciate the power and accuracy of the playing.

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