History weighs upon the nine symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven as heavy as Gibraltar. Two hundred years ago, just as the Classical 18th century turned the corner onto the Romantic 19th, Beethoven set the tone for a new era when writing his First Symphony. Cheerfully thumbing his nose at convention (it starts off-key), the composer began a quarter-century symphonic adventure that led ultimately to his epic and visionary Ninth.
Each symphony had something to say about Beethoven, his age and about the future of music. And every composer of symphonic music since Beethoven has had to contend with this cycle. Indeed, in upcoming months we will be in for a flurry of new millennium symphonies that are essentially updates of the model of the choral Ninth. Meanwhile, John Adams' magnificent new orchestra piece "Naive and Sentimental Music," lately premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, takes its inspiration after German poet Friedrich Schiller, who is probably best known these days because Beethoven incorporated his "Ode to Joy" into the Ninth.
For conductors, this symphonic body is the obvious mountain to climb. Many feel that they simply haven't arrived until they see their names on a handsome five-CD Beethoven box. And that has led to glut. We may still greet a live performance of the full nine, as John Eliot Gardiner will offer with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique this week at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, as an event. But another new box of the nine can be a burden upon consumers (how to choose anymore with nearly six pages' worth of Beethoven symphony recordings listed in the Schwann "Opus"?) and record companies (it costs a fortune to make the recordings).
Of course, you may also ask whether there is anything exceptional to add to the spiritual intensity of a Furtwangler or Klemperer, to the vivid energy of a Toscanini or Szell, to the historical insights from a Harnoncourt or Bruggen, to the brash spirit of a young Bernstein or the sensual fervor of an old Bernstein, to the authority of a Karajan or the warmth of a Walter.
Usually there is not. However, a new set on the super-budget German label Arte Nova Classics does offer something genuinely new for the world of mass-market Beethoven. At a street price of about $20, these five discs together can cost little more than a single full-price CD. And there is nothing to compare with the urgent, revelatory and vividly recorded performances by David Zinman conducting the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. The discs are also available separately, which means you can sample Zinman blasting off the famous Fifth like a rocket and his dabbing the "Pastorale" (the Sixth) with gorgeous primary colors for about the price of a morning latte and scone at your local coffee bar.
Zinman has incorporated two aspects of modern Beethoven thinking into these often radical-sounding performances. First, the recordings take advantage of the New Barenreiter Edition, which is a scholarly cleaning-up of mistakes in the printed scores. These mainly concern matters of articulation--a pair of notes normally slurred might now be separated.
Far more striking to the average listener, though, is Zinman's novel approach to leading an orchestra of modern instruments. Small ensembles utilizing the more delicate instruments of old tend to play faster and thus increase the music's momentum and its excitement factor. Furthermore, their thin, finely gauged sound results in a kind of transparency that exploits Beethoven's radical harmony and counterpoint.
Zinman doesn't completely deny his modern instruments their weight and power, even as he asks for some of their ancestors' flexibility. He realizes that the thrills of acceleration are greater the more weight you push around, so while his Beethoven symphonies are crisp and fleet, they still retain a modern sonic impact.
Take the Ninth. Zinman's performance has little use for the incensed religious ambience of some of the grandest performances; instead, its nearly unbearable urgency has its own wonderful way to evoke the music's cosmic scope. As an important bonus, it features a dynamic chamber chorus that illuminates every word of the "Ode to Joy" and thrilling solo singers (especially the soprano, Ruth Ziesak).
In contrast, an airy new recording of the Ninth by Philippe Herreweghe, utilizing period instruments, is warm and humane, Beethoven more effete than brutish. Herreweghe is an especially good choral conductor, and the singing of chorus and light-toned soloists is radiant; the instruments too have an uncommonly beautiful sound to them.