BEETHOVEN Symphony No 9 (Jordan)
This is the final instalment of Philippe Jordan’s Beethoven cycle recorded live with the Vienna Symphony in the spring of 2017; a cycle that followed hard on the heels of the not undistinguished predecessor which Jordan filmed with his own Paris Opéra orchestra in 2014 15 (Arthaus Musik, 12/16 – nla). The Vienna recordings have been well regarded: an exploration that appeared to marry enlivening intelligence with a well-rehearsed understanding of the kind of problems this particular symphonic odyssey inevitably presents.
Orchestras differ, of course, as do acoustics, obliging any conductor to modify and adapt. Rarely, though, has there been so swift and distinct a change as here with Jordan’s view of the Ninth. Where his Paris Ninth was measured, grounded and humane, this 2017 Vienna performance tends towards the fast and the faceless. This is especially noticeable in the finale. The newer account has the better choir but the performance, so life-affirming in Paris, emerges (not for the first time in history) with the kind of dead-behind-the-eyes joylessness of a totalitarian hymn.
One can see how Jordan might have looked back at his Paris performance and thought the first movement lacked impetus. Yet this is not a problem that’s solved simply by pressing the accelerator to the floor. In this Vienna performance, the opening Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso is taken at an implausibly fast crotchet=82, as opposed to the crotchet=72 76 which wiser counsels (including Jordan himself in 2015) advise if it’s dramatic edge you seek.
As Jordan acknowledges, the metronomes are a problem throughout the Ninth. It didn’t need Stravinsky to point out the nonsense of the slow movement markings, where Adagio molto is marked 60 and Andante moderato 63: both, in any case, far too fast. Furtwängler used to take 30/40, Toscanini 36/48, the two pulses nicely proportionate. Jordan is currently 56/60.
Love the movement or loathe it, so rapid a tempo subverts both its purpose and its mood. As the poet writes, ‘What is life if, full of care / We have no time to stand and stare?’. In Paris Jordan gave us that time; in Vienna he doesn’t.