Happy belated birthday to Ludwig van Beethoven, whose sestercentennial was interrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic, leaving many planned celebrations unrealized. As the world continues to reopen, he can finally receive the presents he deserves. I can think of no better gift than the exuberant, musically thrilling performance of his massive Symphony no. 9 in D minor “Choral” given in Baden-Baden by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe as part of a symphony cycle under Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s baton.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
© Andrea Kremper

This orchestra does not employ a chief conductor, though they have an undeniably strong connection with Nézet-Séguin, one is one of the group’s few honorary members. A sense of understanding and rapport is needed just to execute all the complicated parts of this mammoth, thorny work, much less offer an interpretation worth remembering. The level of comfort between leader and corps was evident from the beginning, as Nézet-Séguin guided the players through the sometimes-confounding thicket of the first movement. Centuries after it was first heard, it still inspires awe and the occasional raised eyebrow, as the listener waits for some cue to follow that never really arrives. Smartly, Nézet-Séguin met the piece where it lives, not trying to make sense out of senseless moments or force cohesion where the composer called for controlled chaos. He elongated certain phrases and ran roughshod over others. It was a reading as great – not greater – than the sum of its parts.

At the same time, Nézet-Séguin’s treatment of a piece that has become a blank canvas for many conductors never ventured into deeply experimental territory. Each movement lasted about as long as you’d expect, with few moments that knocked you upside the head with a new idea. Instead, you marveled at the serenely paced, almost hypnotic slow movement, such a contrast to the fiery Molto vivace. And when you arrived at the exultant Finale, you were ready for an emotional release. The first evidence of the Ode to Joy theme in the low strings sounded almost foreboding, but when they were joined by the violins, it felt like sunshine breaking through a cloud of rain. The mighty Accentus was perfectly jubilant, and in Florian Boesch and Werner Güra, Nézet-Séguin had two soloists who could impeccably intone the most German of texts. The women disappointed somewhat – Siobhan Stagg’s soprano slightly too reedy, Ekaterina Gubanova’s mezzo alarmingly hollow – but the overall effect was one of triumph, a feeling so necessary after this last year’s relentless pain.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Accentus and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
© Andrea Kremper

The Ninth can certainly stand on its own, but it was given here with Symphony no. 1 in C major, a winningly lithe curtain raiser. I particularly appreciated the ethereal partnership forged between flutist Clara Andrada de la Calle and oboist Philippe Tondre throughout, his expressivity complementing her refinement. Yet there was hardly an element that didn’t click. Nézet-Séguin seemed to know that right away – as the first movement concluded, the camera caught him in an expression of unbridled please. This listener felt the same way.

This performance was reviewed from the Baden-Baden Festival Digital Hall live stream