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Manfred Honeck is one of todays leading Beethoven conductors. As music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, he has created notably exciting recordings of the Third, Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. Now he and the orchestra, founded 125 years ago this month, are releasing their interpretation of the mighty Ninth.
What makes Honecks approach so stimulating in this most standard of repertoire is the sense that he has rethought each bar of the music. He took David Allen through the turbulent opening minutes of the Ninth Symphonys finale before the baritone exclaims O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! (Oh friends, not these sounds!) and announces the famous choral Ode to Joy. Here are edited excerpts from Honeck's comments during the conversation.
When we are listening to the fourth movement, we should not forget the three movements we have heard before. Beethoven shows in the first movement the art of motivic technique, using a small, atomic element and developing it. The second movement is not a slow movement, which was normal at the time: Its a scherzo, a brutal scherzo. Then he has this very beautiful slow movement, with a singing melody, intimate phrases and silence.
And then the timpani and trumpets come in to start the fourth movement. This illustrates chaos, discomfort; its like an explosion. Beethoven could have introduced the solo and choral voices immediately, but he wanted first to tell a story in instruments. We know that he always fought for the ideals of the French Revolution. Im convinced that what he wanted to tell us here is, Listen, not everything is beautiful in our world. Is it war? Is it another kind of conflict? Whatever it is, everything that destroys our soul is somehow here.
This must be as dissonant as possible, and it is as dissonant as possible. That it is a presto extremely quick is clear. And Beethoven starts not on the downbeat, but on the third beat; he starts with a syncope, something that brings unrest in a rhythm. He wanted to have it be uneven. The end of the slow movement is pleasant, and then he needed to shock people. Its desperation; its turmoil; its a riot.
For me, the instrumental recitatives that follow are much more interesting than what the baritone sings later on. Speaking with the instruments is very unusual for a symphony, but in operas it happens all the time, to have these kind of sung-spoken passages.
Beethoven uses the cellos and basses like a song without words, a recitative without words. There is no text, of course, so you have to think of the words yourself. For the first and last of these recitatives, its easy to figure out, because the words are sung to the same notes by the baritone later on. I believe it is Beethoven himself speaking in the voice of these cellos and basses, but it could be anyone who is calling for more humanity.
So the orchestral riot ends, then the score has three rests. But if you hear a riot, you want to stop it; you go out and say, Please dont do it! So I skip the rests. I wanted the cellos and basses immediately to speak, as if theyre saying, O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! You have chaos, and then somebody bursts in and says: Dont do this! We are looking for something else!
But our rioters dont care; it doesnt work. They shoot back, Well, what do you want?" In the second recitative, the speaker our cellos and basses again wants to teach them. You should fight for an ideal, they suggest. But what is the rioters alternative? The first alternative they have is to echo the first movement, which illustrates chaos in a different way. Its only small motifs. Its not a melody; its nothing.
In Beethovens sketches, he writes that the speaker now says, No, what I ask for is more pleasant. This speaker is still upset, but this time he also brings in other emotional elements, a little bit like a father. At the end, you have nicht diese Töne again now in pianissimo, a heavenly sound.
So the crowd starts to dance, evoking the scherzo of the second movement, but our speaker says two notes, Nicht doch!: No, no!
Then we can imagine the speaker suggesting he wants something more about beauty, love and freedom. This recalls Beethovens opera Fidelio, in which Florestan is imprisoned and Leonore has the courage to fight for his freedom, for love. So the instrumental crowd now tries the third movement. It is only two bars, but when Beethoven writes the direction dolce sweetly it evokes a human feeling. We all want to have love and peace and freedom.
And then the speakers reaction is very clear, as if he is saying: I understand you, but dont be sad, dont be sentimental. Lets stand up! Let us sing the song of something more joyful. In his sketches, Beethoven notes that the speaker might be saying, I will sing it for you.
Then of course the famous melody comes but only for four bars. I decided to do a crescendo here, because it should sound like we have found what we were looking for, that now we can go on.
Earlier, the speaker had said, Nicht doch!: No, no! Now he has Ja, ja!: Yes, yes! And the music goes into a very lively and joyful dance, as if to say, We have found it now.
Beethoven could then have immediately started the Ode to Joy melody with the full orchestra, but its the speaker himself who starts the cellos and basses.
What makes Beethoven so special is that everything has a purpose. The melody starts from piano, creating a long journey until the full, joyful song. Its as if one person starts singing something, then more people join, then a second, then a third then everyone.
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