Back in the summer of 2002 at the Tanglewood Music Center, one of my mentors made an off-hand remark that a conductor’s first Ninth “will not go well.” (I am using gentler language, but you get the point.) This not terribly reassuring comment stuck with me, knowing that the inventible day would come. I suppose that part of the reason that this resonated at the time was my own fear of the Ninth, one that I didn’t understand and certainly didn’t appreciate. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what seemed like a rambling third movement. (I wasn’t alone; the first critics panned it.) It wasn’t until I heard a revelatory performance (which to this day remains my definitive interpretation) by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and the Vienna Philharmonic that it made sense to me. Isserstedt’s ability to convey the structure of the work is as clear as the outlines of the Parthenon itself and the sheer beauty of the playing and singing is breathtaking. The first live performance I ever heard was Sir Georg Solti in Zurich back in 1991, but in full disclosure I don’t remember much; I had just lost a piano competition and while Beethoven himself could have been conducting I would have still been sulking…!
My next encounter was at the library of The Curtis Institute of Music where I uncovered a gorgeous, hardbound leather edition (Breitkopf & Hartel) of the symphony from the 1920’s. I simply had to have it and made a mental note that when the day came, this was the score that I would use. A few years later, I purchased a smaller Peters Edition for the Canford School of Conducting for a summer course with the legendary George Hurst. However, I found the print too small and later bought the Barenreiter authoritative full score, which is the edition that I am now using as my reference.
In early October, I will have the rare opportunity to view two original copyist scores of the Ninth, brought together for the first time since 1824 as part of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s (RPS) bicentennial celebrations in New York. I will also attend a performance by the New York Philharmonic. (OCYSO were the privileged guests of the RPS in August, attending the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain’s stunning performance at the BBC Proms. That performance may have in fact shattered the old speed record. Check it out for yourself on BBC 3.)