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Boston Symphony Orchestra

Beethoven’s Ninth Revisited at Tanglewood

By Jonathan Richmond

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by Rafael FrÜhbeck de Burgos

Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Conducted by John Oliver

Beethoven Symphony No. 9


Having followed the various music movements over the years, I’ve reached the conclusion that there simply is no one “right” or “wrong” way to perform Beethoven. The trend, undoubtedly, is to go for lighter, tauter, faster performances, whether using original instruments or modern ones. Conductors following this approach have produced some exciting performances, but only after they have allowed their conception of Beethoven to break formal rules.

Given the exhilarating performances and recordings of the new movement, it can be dangerous to return to the traditional, but it is still worthy of an attempt. The nature of the Ninth is contemplative, and going slower promises the possibility of reaching a level of unique serenity. Rafael FrÜhbeck de Burgos, conducting the final Boston Symphony Orchestra concert of the Tanglewood season, stretched the limits of this traditional approach.

The opening movement began with promise. It seemed to be endlessly questioning, with restrained power. The instrumental voices were well separated and blended to evoke the sweetest tragedy. There was a lightness of touch that propelled the music nicely. However, climactic moments did not reach the required intensity, and the movement evaporated without leaving adequate impact.

The way subtle wind voices interacted with string textures in the second movement was superb. Despite passages of eloquent lyricism, however, crescendi were not always clear, and the essential manic power which must pervade the Ninth failed to show its face here.

The third movement was taken very slowly to capture the essence of the sublime. The Tanglewood audience was remarkably silent, and there were certainly passages of astonishing beauty. In the end, however, the movement lost both momentum and direction, and it came to a diffused conclusion.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, directed by John Oliver, proved to be the star of the finale, singing with zest and power as well as nuance and understanding. The choral contribution was along modern lines, but de Burgos was intent on imposing his traditional vision on the orchestra.

The orchestra failed to assume the necessary power and the piece was lacking in the departments of clarity and organization. The chorus, nonetheless, evoked the spirit of Beethoven, and left us all yearning for more performances and more approaches to this most mystifying and profound of works.