The last time I heard Beethoven’s Ninth was in February, the triumphant culmination of the Barbican’s Beethoven Weekender, where all nine symphonies were shared between five UK orchestras. Back then, we feared Ludwig overload this anniversary year, but planned cycles have since bitten the Corona-dust left, right and centre. There were no plans, however, for a cycle at the Salzburg Festival and its sole Beethoven symphony – the Ninth, conducted by Riccardo Muti – ended up being given on almost the same dates as Markus Hinterhäuser’s original schedule, with nearly the same line-up of performers.

Riccardo Muti
© Salzburg Festival | Marco Borrelli

“Go big or go home” could easily have been the motto of this summer’s festival. It has boldly mounted a month of events, opening with Strauss’ Elektra – opera on a massive orchestral scale – and crammed the stage of the Großes Festspielhaus for Mahler’s Sixth under Andris Nelsons. Muti didn’t just go big. He went huge. It’s a mark of the Italian’s resolutely old-fashioned way with Beethoven that there were even more strings on display in this Ninth than there were for Nelsons’ Mahler 6! 

This was granitic Beethoven, hewn from the Mönchsberg rock. It came from another era, the sort of performance that musical paleontologists would consign to a dinosaur museum where visitors can goggle at its epic skeleton and marvel how sprightlier, period-influenced performances somehow evolved under its lengthy shadow. Muti, one of the big beasts of the maestro world, ruled with an iron fist (often clenched), a sober beat and an occasional scowl, pursing his lips at one point in the Adagio. After the gentlest of introductions, detailed, exploratory, came the first mighty outburst – heavy and emphatic – that told you exactly what sort of journey we were on. It was a rugged ascent, unhurried, but we were promised great views from the top. 

To ensure we didn’t lose our footing, speeds were deliberate. Muti’s first movement took over 18 minutes, the finale over 27. Even Christian Thielemann, also with the Vienna Philharmonic, was never this slow. But there were things to marvel at on the way. The glossy sheen of the Vienna strings – all 60 of them – impressed, as did the articulation of the woodwinds in the Molto vivace second movement. The angry explosion at the start of the finale rattled the senses before Muti briefly took a back seat and allowed the cellos and basses to intone the Ode to Joy theme without intervention. 

Riccardo Muti, Asmik Grigorian, Marianne Crebassa and the Vienna Philharmonic
© Salzburg Festival | Marco Borrelli

Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s words usually offers comfort and hope with its message of brotherhood. Here, there was a mood of defiance, beating the odds, slaying the beast… and it worked. Muti gritted his teeth and dug in for the fight. The soloists, all very fine, were not ideally blended, particularly the pairing of Asmik Grigorian’s steely soprano with Marianne Crebassa’s soft-grained, duskier mezzo. Gerald Finley sang mellifluously, while Saimir Pirgu offered Italianate brightness in the Turkish March section (cue some neat triangle shots from the video director). Singing behind a row of perspex screens, the greatest joy came from the Vienna State Opera Chorus, in full voice and with incisive attack. Their beams of sheer pleasure at singing together again were most moving. I can only imagine choirs elsewhere looking on enviously. 

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.