Haitink’s Fifth And (presumably) Last Beethoven Ninth

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 8

Bernard Haitink famously disparaged conductors who re-recorded and re-re-recorded certain works ad infinitum. Of course Haitink ignored his own advice by churning out unnecessary Mahler and Bruckner symphony remakes year after year. Granted, one could argue that Haitink’s mostly superb live 2005/06 London Symphony Orchestra Beethoven cycle was justified because the conductor embraced the then-recent Bärenreiter Edition and thereby revised his interpretations. Certainly his LSO Ninth symphony markedly improved upon his three relatively uninteresting earlier Philips recordings of the work. Recorded during his final concerts with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in February 2019, this fifth and presumably last Haitink Ninth, however, does not always rise to the LSO version’s high standards.

The opening Allegro ma non troppo is thicker in texture and less mobile than before. The Scherzo retains the LSO’s chamber-like detail, yet the Bavarian Radio musicians serve up less precise goods, and a heavier Trio section to boot. The LSO Adagio molto e cantabile shaved several minutes off of Haitink’s previous versions. The present performance clocks in at less time, yet it probes deeper on account of Haitink’s additional flexibility and lovely first-desk solos. While the recitatives at the finale’s outset are not “in tempo” as per Beethoven’s directive, here they make a stronger impact than in London, due to more forceful accentuation from the Bavarian cellos and double basses. The reiteration of the movement’s introduction drags in comparison to the London performance’s excitement.

Fortunately Gerald Finley returns to deliver one of the most beautiful renditions of the bass solo on disc. For the tenor part, Mark Padmore proves far superior to the LSO recording’s hectoring John MacMaster, but the March and Fughetta that follow lack the LSO’s litheness and energy. Eventually Haitink and his forces find their collective center after the Ode to Joy choral tutti. In essence, the slow movement alone is worth the price of Haitink’s valedictory Ninth. But it must be said that none of his five Ninths matches the consistency of vision and fervent concentration characterizing such disparate points of reference as Wand (RCA), Böhm I (DG), Fricsay (DG), Barenboim (Warner), Kletzki (Supraphon), Gielen (EMI), and, for those who want the Bärenreiter text, Vänskä (BIS).

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Wand (RCA); Fricsay (DG); Barenboim (Warner); Vänskä (BIS)

  • Sally Matthews (soprano); Gerhild Romberger (alto); Mark Padmore (tenor); Gerald Finley (bass)
  • Bavarian Radio Chorus & Orchestra, Bernard Haitink

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