Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D Minor op. 125

October 15, 2019



van BEETHOVEN, Ludwig (1770—1827)
Symphony No.9 in D minor, ‘Choral’, Op.125
I. Allegro ma non troppo e un poco maestoso 14’26
II. Molto vivace — Presto 14’08
III. Adagio molto e cantabile — Andante moderato 14’31
IV. Finale 22’38
Presto 2’37
Allegro assai 3’21
Presto 3’28
Allegro assai vivace. Alla marcia 3’53
Andante maestoso 3’02
Allegro energico e sempre ben marcato 2’13
Allegro ma non tanto 2’15
Poco allegro — Presto 1’49
Ann-Helen Moen soprano · Marianne Beate Kielland alto
Allan Clayton tenor · Neal Davies bass
Bach Collegium Japan chorus & orchestra
Masaaki Suzuki conductor

BIS-2451 TOTAL TIME- 65:03

Composed between 1822-24 Beethoven was thinking about the D Minor Symphony ten years earlier with sketches of the scherzo, fugue, and first movement in his sketchbooks. It was during this time in his life that the effects of his deafness were beginning to take effect. Since his early youth, he had been interested in Schiller’s An Die Freude (owned a book of his poems) “Ode to Joy” and his Ninth Symphony became the vehicle to incorporate this poem written in 1785. The poem/song has become a symbol of hope and unity,  most recently because of the Bernstein performance when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 as well as the initial reaction of the work between the populist and Hapsburgs among others. It turned the city of Vienna from a police state into one of universal brotherhood. Beethoven, by using this composition, created the first Choral Symphony, opera incorporated into a symphony, and a bridge between classical and romantic music. He also influenced a lot of composers including Brahms, Bruckner, Wagner, and Mahler with this last major work.

Beethoven conducted the premiere in Vienna in May of 1824 (his choice was Berlin because of the Italian influence in Vienna). He was totally deaf by this time in his life and the alto singer Caroline Unger turned him around after the performance to face the enthusiastic audience which was in shock when they realized he couldn’t hear. He conducted the following evening to a much smaller audience and this was his last public performance.

The Symphony is in four movements and very long for its day at 60+ minutes. It was the largest orchestra that Beethoven had ever assembled including two ensembles and amateurs.

The first movement begins with a pianissimo stirring in the fog waiting to emerge. We don’t know what it is but it shows itself with an abrupt immersion of a theme in D minor in fortissimo. Written in 1816 (sketchbooks) this heroic music shows the transition between the classical and the romantic style. As it shows itself we don’t know whether to embrace it or be afraid. The end features a funeral march that starts with the bass and eventually spreads itself to the entire orchestra, a coda of some length.

The second movement, a scherzo, in quadruple time, is played out of usual order and has a somewhat similar sound to the first movement. It is a fugue piece of rhythm in D minor, staccato, with accompaniment from the timpani. The second theme is in D major which is in duple time and the trio’s theme is introduced by the trombones, a folk-like melody which eventually is overpowered by the scherzo which abruptly ends the movement.

The third movement, an adagio in B flat major, is placed out of order by Beethoven and unlike the first two movements is one that is filled with warmth but also sadness. It is lead by the woodwinds, a double variation between the rhythm and the melody. In the end, the pizzicato sound increases in volume and the movement ends with a loud fanfare from the brass.

The final and longest of the movements is, in reality, a symphony within a symphony divided into four parts.

  1.  Themes and Variations which include a brief cell of each of the first three movements as well as dissonant passages in the beginning which definitely gets your attention.
  2.   A Scherzo in a military-style and it ends in a chorus of the main theme “Ode to Joy.”
  3.   A slow meditation with a new theme.
  4.   A fugato based on the first and third themes.

The Ninth today is almost universally accepted as one of the greatest musical works ever written. Having said that Verdi loved the first three movements but found bad writing for the voices in the final movement. There has been much discussion in the metronome markings, some conductors claiming it was too fast. There has been a discussion about a missing weight which would alter the numbers on the metronome of Beethoven’s that still exists today. Both Wagner and Mahler changed the woodwinds to give it a modern sound and several have performed the work on original instruments, the path taken by the Bach Collegium Japan, orchestra of this review.

There have been several books that have been written about just the Ninth Symphony and the times in Austria/Germany.

There have been movies such as “Copying Beethoven”(2006) which is a fictional story about the last year of his life about a copyist who never really existed. There was a Hollywood film “Immortal Beloved”(1994) starring Gary Oldman about his life. There was a documentary film “Following the Ninth: In the Steps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony.”

Stanley Kubrick, a director, featured the Ninth in his film “A Clockwork Orange,” and it has been used in several other films such as “Die Hard,” “Dead Poets Society” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”

Founded in 1990 by Masaaki Suzuki, Bach leading authority, the Bach Collegium Japan has recently gotten away from recording only Bach to Beethoven including this 9th Symphony using period instruments. The result is nothing short of spectacular comparing it to similar recordings. The SACD Surround Sound Hybrid pressing results in a superior sound, a huge difference from my Toscanini NBC Symphony release from the early fifties which is a monaural recording. Over the years I have listened to many conductors and orchestras and this has remained my favorite. Suzuki has given us a fine reading with period instruments in a modern up to date recording. I can only hope this will be a success for BIS. It is now a part of my collection along with the Toscanini.



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