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Ionarts-at-Large: Beethoven for Munich

Part of the 850th anniversary celebration for Munich included a free concert of the ‘city’s own’ orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Introduced by the mayor, whose comments were apt enough even as he re-dubbed the choral symphony “Eroica”, it played before a crowd that got their tickets though a raffle – none were available for purchase. Unfortunately the relation between cost and value was demonstrated by the absence of about a third of the would-be attendees.

A shame for those who stayed at home, because the performance was as splendid as it was long, and then some. The first movement, lasting nearly 18 minutes (13 – 15 are the average) started soft and nebulous, the crescendo turning it quickly into something rousing and dominant. I suspect the conductor might not like the comparison – for reasons musical and otherwise – but his Beethoven reminds me most of Daniel Barenboim’s: burnished, flexible, smooth, broad and unapologetically romantic without any pretense of offering something historically correct, reduced to the humble size of aspiring accuracy.

It might be a musicologically untenable claim, but Beethoven composed the Ninth for a future orchestra and sound rather than what he had available. The work does not suffer from the possibilities a modern symphony orchestra can offer it – it appreciates them, it embraces them, and blooms only further. The only proof I have to offer is the one found in the eating of that symphonic pudding. It’s one I suspect to be convincing enough, at least when a performance like this comes along.

The second movement, at around 13 minutes, was ripped through with tightly controlled force and with special care lavished on transitions. Everything was homogenous, nothing jerky or anything other than organic. Thielemann worked out the compelling necessity, that inner inevitability out of the music he works on: he certainly did here.

It really isn’t a secret, and it certainly can’t be one to anyone who regularly hears symphonic orchestras in concert: the bigger the orchestra and the more string players, the more subtle and softer will the pianissimos be. The size of a huge, or even just very large orchestras is not primarily a function of loudness (pace Elektra), but softness. Thirty violins well coordinated with thirty more lower strings (in the traditional German setting seating first violins and basses stage right, second violins and violas stage left) bring the greatest tenderness to the fore with more ease than a smaller band ever could. And if forced to chose between tenderness and authenticity, I’ll choose the former in that third movement, Adagio molto e cantabile, just as was the case here. Now if the flutes and reeds had melded into one another a little more, that movement – 18 luxuriously long minutes – might have come yet closer to perfection.

The last movement, with Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano), Lioba Braun (mezzo), Steve Davislim (tenor), Guido Jentjens (bass), and the Philharmonic Choir of Munich (director Andreas Herrmann), was grand, as it should be, but for greatness the vocal contributions were too variable, ranging between acceptable and very good. Davislim’s voice was a little theatrical, without the benefit of truly soaring; Jentjens’ admirably without strain even up high, but a touch forceful. Stoyanova dominated Braun who would have done well to unleash more of the Wagnerian mezzo in her. While the Philharmonic Choir isn’t as good as the spectacular Bavarian Radio Choir, it did its’ job with audible enthusiasm and, save for an early soprano entry, befitting the excellence of the rest of the performance.

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