No sooner is the Beethoven Jubilee Year of 2020 over, with its inevitably increased volume of new recordings of the jubilarian, than the Signum Records label releases an album of the composer's last three symphonies. Is this necessary? Especially since this package includes the ninth symphony with its famous final chorale, which has become something like the European anthem and thus is performed quite frequently. In the case of this new recording, the answer is clearly "yes, it must be". Never before, even by conducting geniuses like Arturo Toscanini, has the Ninth been heard with such urgency and clarity. There is no palavering, concealing under incense, celebrating and religiously exaggerating. Rather, clarity reigns at all times. Purposeful, brisk, with enormous momentum, obsessed with detail and under glowing intensity, it goes through thick and thin in the first movement. Exuberant ferocity and force drive the Scherzo onward and absolutely forward. This is clearly contrasted by the exceedingly delicately realized Trio. With the opening of the finale of the Beethoven Ninth, the listener is abruptly swept into a frighteningly awful hell by the "terrible fanfare," from which he is only released by the bass's conciliatory injunction not to pursue these notes any further. The Alla Marcia interlude, mercilessly whipped through by the conductor, sets the goal for the ensuing tenor jubilation, into which the chorus joyfully joins, to rush happily toward the finale only interrupted by rare but thus all the more impressive sighs of relief. This Ninth is simply wonderfully staged and executed.
This miracle of a ninth Beethoven symphony is brought to us by Thomas Adès conducting the Britten Sinfonia. This Cambridge-based chamber orchestra, founded in 1992, is a flexible ensemble composed of freelance musicians from various European countries who are engaged on a project-by-project basis. Named after composer Benjamin Britten, the orchestra gives about 70 concerts a year and performs with different conductors depending on the project. For its Beethoven project, which includes the performance and recording of all the symphonies (the present album completes the project), the orchestra has chosen Thomas Adès, who is extremely successful as a pianist but also as a composer, and who as a conductor has set an unmistakably individual mark in the phalanx of symphony recordings by the Bonner Meister, at the latest with his current Beethoven series.
The two other symphonies on this album, the Seventh and Eighth, also leave a deep impression on the listener with their approach bursting with energy, which in the case of the Eighth repeats the flight of fancy of the Ninth Symphony. While there are competitors in the discography of the seventh symphony that come along with comparable momentum, the eighth symphony under Adès with its furiously fast first movement proves to be extremely unconventionally designed. This symphony could have been penned by Igor Stravinsky in such an angular and far from tranquil manner. This interpretation leaves the mostly uninterested and thus uninteresting forest-and-meadow interpretations of the competition far behind and it indeed represents something like a rehabilitation of the verdict, dating back to the premiere and more or less valid until today, that this is a work of inferior quality by Beethoven. The opposite is quite obviously the case.
As in the case of the two preceding Beethoven albums in this line-up, the present album includes a work by contemporary English composer Gerald Barry. Scored for soprano and orchestra, Eternal Recurrence is a setting of passages from Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra. The piece laughs and roars, with a strong emphasis on antiphonal wind sections, high trumpets and horns tossing motifs back and forth in the orchestra while the soprano coloratura vocal line struggles to make its own highly virtuosic interjections. It's reminiscent of Janacek's Sinfonietta, but also of Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks. Jennifer France masters the challenges of this composition with considerable verve, and the Britten Sinfonietta provides a congenial, deliberately uncomfortable sound that contrasts sharply with the Beethoven symphonies.
One can only wish this exceptionally well-done album a wide distribution.
Jennifer France, soprano
Christianne Stotijn, mezzo-soprano
Ed Lyon, tenor
Matthew Rose, bass
Thomas Ades, conductor