If you are going to hear any performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the next decade, it should be from Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Beethoven’s message of brotherhood and camaraderie could not be personified better than in the form of this oversized chamber orchestra whose members share meticulous eye contact, synchronize their movements, and even shake hands with one another before departing the stage, a formality unheard of in the United States.

The Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle earlier in their cycle © Rob Davidson
The Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle earlier in their cycle
© Rob Davidson

From the onset of the first movement, it was clear that the symphony was perfectly crafted to fit an architectural design more profound even than the one Beethoven attempted in his written dynamics and expression markings. Beethoven’s imperfect approach to any given aspect of composing music allows a master conductor to curate fresh understandings of the Ninth Symphony. Maestro Rattle especially thrives in balancing these dynamic imperfections, which are often uniformly implemented across the page. By highlighting subtle details in the inner stratum, he successfully leads his musicians to link the motifs Beethoven scatters throughout the orchestra. The introduction, for example, was sculpted as if on the spot because each entrance was stacked individually before building to a thoughtful, forward-thinking forte.

Maestro Rattle set the second movement at Beethoven’s intended metronome mark and kept the energy under control with a statuesque posture. Choosing not to stand and beat out the tempo allowed his orchestra to do what they do best and dance. The character of the trio took the form of a fluid legato and contrasted so greatly with the Scherzo that it nearly created a separate movement. He then unraveled the languid third movement in slow motion, restraining the energy with stiff intensity.

The finale of Beethoven’s Ninth satisfies many modern audiences because the tuneful “An Die Freude” melody can be comfortably enjoyed for its pure tonal simplicity. Before Elysium is conjured, however, Beethoven arouses fleeting hallucinations in a moment often described by musicologists as the awakening from a dream or a period of introspective meditation; the interpretations of Beethoven’s Ninth are endless. Nevertheless, out of silence, Maestro Rattle conjured the most delicate, initial statement of the “Freude” theme in the Berliner Philharmoniker’s bass section and contoured the remaining entrances to form the foundation of a transformed tonal landscape. Bass Dimitry Ivashchenko, one of the few people permitted to tell Maestro Rattle “nicht diese Töne” (no more of these sounds!), entered with enough volume to peel the red velvet off Carnegie’s seats. The Westminster Symphonic Choir rallied behind him in ecstatic rapture, and the tune took the usual course. Soprano Susanna Phillips, stepping in for Annette Dasch, mezzo Eva Vogel, and tenor Christian Elsner, joined Ivashchenko for Beethoven’s strange and agile falling-tone melody with great precision. Written in a pseudo-contrapuntal style reminiscent of Baroque oratorio, the singers did not make their lines sound easy or lyrical for that matter, but instead reveled in Beethoven’s unique, surly gaiety.

Maestro Rattle possesses an imitable rapport with his musicians. Conductors are quick to grab the hand of their concertmasters, and sometimes the most grateful might reach for the nearest cello or viola, but this Maestro weaves his way through the orchestra to hug, pat or kiss nearly every musician individually, and this symbol of comradeship mirrors the goal Beethoven and Schiller desired to achieve.