Benjamin Zander is a conductor who unusually gained his most widespread fame in his later years, compared to the Barenboims, Bernsteins and Abbados who were famous from a younger age. This is in no small part due to the relatively low profile he kept as a cellist and conductor secondarily, and an educator foremostly. This is not to say he is no great cellist or conductor- he was taught by Benjamin Britten himself and has over 60 years experience. But if you were to ask him, he would likely reply that the achievement of which he is most proud is the formation and maintenance of young players, specifically the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. His commitment to making classical music accessible and engaging to others has given him an international career as a speaker on leadership, which can be recognised from his TED talk which has over 10 million views.
In light of that, recording this album was a lifelong passion of his- to conduct the most famous symphony in the world, by the most famous composer in the world, according to the composer’s actual directions. Many have performed their version of Beethoven’s Ninth, and there are some stunning renditions. But this performance in particular does it’s conductor very proud.
“An extra treat awaits the listener when the piece has concluded, something which is testament to Zander’s teaching vocation”
It is by no means a sluggish version, coming in around 80 minutes compared to the more usual 100, but one never feels that the orchestra is rushing. It is delicate where it must be and strident when it needs to be. The choir does an exceptional job with what is notoriously difficult writing. The changes which Zander makes, forces them to stretch further and higher and they achieve it admirably. The soloists also take up the challenge well. However, the highest praise is to be reserved for the strings. The Ninth is incredibly challenging at the best of times and the principal reason behind the original tempi being unused is that it was considered unplayable to them. And yet, carried by the enthusiasm of their conductor, they manage to make runs and scales played at extraordinary speeds sound effortless and clear. There is a video on YouTube of the recording process, and to witness the double-bass players and cellists moving their hands up and down their massive instruments with ferocious intent is impressive to say the least.
An extra treat awaits the listener when the piece has concluded, something which is testament to Zanders teaching vocation. He understands this is an unusual performance and so provides a complete breakdown of the piece, giving context and reasoning behind the changes he made. In fact this analysis is longer than the piece, yet like the piece, never feels its length due to his clear and compelling reasoning. It is truly a delight to hear this man speak and he even adds sections of the piece to underline a point he makes, sometimes providing different versions to compare and contrast.
Needless to say, this recording is a tremendous feat and will likely go down in musical annals as a unique event. This is not to say that the version is perfect- if you have listened to many versions of the Ninth, there are differences which could go as far to be off-putting and jarring. However, based on the merits of what Zander was attempting to do, by which I mean conducting the most famous symphony in the world by the most famous composer in the world, according to the composer’s actual directions, it is hard to argue this is not an unqualified success.
Available online on iTunes, Spotify and Apple Music