On average, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra has tackled Beethoven’s supremely popular Symphony No. 9 a shade more frequently than once every five years since they first felt up to it in 1955. Without fail, the CSO performed thrillingly on every occasion I have witnessed, dating back to Leo Driehuys’s last appearance as the orchestra’s musical director in 1993. With the orchestra and the Oratorio Singers filling the Belk Theater stage and the house invariably at capacity, there is an electric sense of occasion when the Choral Symphony is performed. Nor was Driehuys the last CSO maestro to hit on the idea of going out with Beethoven’s big bang, for Christof Perick (2001-10) also scheduled the piece to crown his final season. So I was expecting a spirited, crowd pleasing performance – but not a particularly different performance under current maestro Christopher Warren-Green’s baton.
From the beginning, the CSO’s interpretation sounded revamped. As with Mendelssohn’s “Italian Symphony” two weeks earlier, Warren-Green’s approach to the first theme of the opening Allegro was more rigid and metronomic than we’re used to – and perhaps a notch or two speedier. While robbing these passages of some of their familiar flavor, this approach is well suited to establishing contrasts with slower, more lyrical passages and with other fast but more fluid and overtly romantic passages. Coming off the quiet inchoate opening bars, the theme was somewhat devoid of its usual color, but the rigor of the theme had a carryover effect, so when the hush reprised it was infused with a greater sense of expectancy. By continuing to push the tempo with the theme and its swirling aftermath, there was a newfound urgency and cohesiveness. There was also more emphasis on Leonardo Soto’s timpani than I remember two years ago and a sharper sense of ensemble from the woodwinds, two elements that would recur across the remaining three movements.
Sounding very comfortable at the Molto vivace and Presto tempos of the second movement, the CSO demonstrated how effective Warren-Green’s shifts from rigidity to suppleness can be. Soto let loose some real bombs over some of the softer playing and the winds sounded sunny over the strings’ brisk gallop. A slight squonk marred Frank Portone’s first spot on French horn, but he hit his mulligan squarely after Hollis Ulaky’s smooth oboe. Cellos and trombones were also lovely before the final muster. No need to be condescending about the pacing. Casually timed with my wristwatch, the whole symphony clocked in at 66 minutes, about the same as my Walter Weller recording with the City of Birmingham, perhaps a minute faster than my Nikolaus Harnoncourt/Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and four minutes faster than my Simon Rattle/Vienna Philharmonic. Remembering that my 66-minute clocking included the unhurried entrance of the four lead vocalists at the end of the third movement and an orchestral re-tuning, you can gather how resolutely Warren-Green kept his foot on the accelerator.
The tempos of the third movement, Adagio and Andante, weren’t rushed, so they stood out all the more in contrast with the others. Overall effect was rather idyllic as the strings began sweetly and the winds offered a richly mellow response. First violins were ethereally transparent in the treble before principals Elizabeth Landon on flute and Ulaky on oboe combined lyrically. Principal clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo teamed no less effectively with Portone, the principal French horn regaining his customary eloquence, and the trumpets first blasts heralding the finale were stately and clear. Yet amid the meditative lyricism, the golden thread that continued to run through this performance – or as a foreshadowing of the resounding joy just around the corner – was Soto toiling softly at the timpani, an element that’s nearly buried in most recordings behind the strings’ pizzicatos. Once again, Warren-Green asked for a little more emphasis from the rear guard of his ensemble, even before the fusillade signaling the start of the choral movement.
For the last triumphant final movement of his last completed symphony Beethoven penned no fewer than 13 tempo and mood markings, enough for three more symphonies. No doubt spurred by the adrenalin rush of the audience and the occasion, yet another season finale for the mighty Ninth, Warren-Green cruised through all of it in less than 22 minutes, remarkably swift. Nevertheless, he left his mark on the music. Response to the cellos after the opening salvo seemed to go overboard in its accelerated, blockish rigidity, but from the introduction of the big tune by the cellos until the entrance of the solo vocalists, it was all magic. At first, cellos and double-basses played so gently their hands hardly seemed to move. Violins created a compelling awakening and then a heavenly beauty in their response, and the rigor of the trumpets made the march a thrilling foretaste of the ecstasies to come.
Dramatically, Beethoven goofed when he had the baritone sing his exhortation, “Let us sing songs that are more cheerful and full of joy,” after the melody he’s about to sing has been played many times over, climaxed by the rousing trumpets. But Dashon Burton, in his Charlotte debut, made it sound like a peremptory call to arms, as most baritones do. His recap of the brotherhood tune wasn’t as powerful in the upper part of his range as he would sound later on in the climactic quartet, and the lower region of his voice was underpowered when the music took him there. Perhaps overtaxed in his attempts to capture the martial rigidity Warren-Green was calling for, Christopher Pfund could often be accused of barking his first solo. But together, the men sounded ideal, as if they’d been singing duets for years instead of days. Much the same could be said of the women, soprano Katie Van Kooten and mezzo Stacey Rishoi, though Van Kooten had by far the more powerful instrument in her Charlotte debut. As for the Oratorio Singers, they performed as if they had been aching to be turned loose for decades. Their second entrance with the big tune was as militant as the trumpets’ had been earlier, yet they were mightier. We’ve heard them before in this music under the fine direction of Scott Allen Jarrett, but Warren-Green seems to have encouraged them more enthusiastically to fill the hall with their voices. Yet in that hushed sublime moment when the chorus floats lovingly on a single syllable, after all the poetry had been sung through for the first time, they managed a collective pulsating vibrato I’d never heard before. “Above the heavens He must dwell,” we had just been told, and as the chills ran down from my shoulders to my feet, it was obvious that Beethoven and the Oratorio were doing their best to lift us there.