Andrew McGregor 2006-11-13
Beethoven’s Ninth – the Choral Symphony. How much do we really need another recording? The obvious answer is that we don’t; that between the Klemperers, Karajans, Kubeliks and Abbados – never mind the Norringtons, Harnoncourts and Gardiners – all bases are pretty much covered.
But Bernard Haitink’s live Beethoven cycle with the LSO has found him in such vintage form that you’ll want to hear this if you’ve encountered any of the others. Haitink makes it an enthralling journey, from the shimmering emptiness of the opening and the first movement’s sense of elemental struggle, to the rhythmic juggernaut of the second movement. Here there’s a terse crispness, an uncompromising relentlessness that maintains an impression of grim determination...this reading for all its energy doesn’t pre-empt the ‘Ode to Joy’ choral finale.
Haitink’s reading may be rooted in the ‘big band Beethoven’ of the mid-20th century, but it sounds as though period instrument performers have had an impact, and not just in that urgently propelled second movement; listen to the carefully controlled string vibrato in the slow third movement, taken at a tempo I doubt Haitink would have considered for a moment twenty years ago.
Then that famous finale: fine soloists and the London Symphony Chorus in good shape, yet perhaps it's here that Haitink’s reading lacks a little of the explosive exuberance that makes the greatest accounts utterly unforgettable. Maybe he’s husbanding his resources, though, as there’s a splendid sense of growth as the movement unfolds, and the last pages are truly celebratory.
As before in this series the playing of the LSO is outstanding, and the recording, both on CD in stereo, and in surround from the SACD version, makes a virtue of the comparatively restricted acoustic of the Barbican in London: there’s loads of detail, and just enough resonance. Haitink’s Ninth may not turn out to be the best single performance from his Beethoven cycle, but it’s still an excellent climax to one of the most memorable modern traversals we’ve had.