Could there be anything new to say about Beethoven’s nine symphonies, the most performed and analysed works in orchestral literature? Two recent recordings, by the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, suggest there can be. They are based on a new edition of the symphonies by Jonathan Del Mar, which purports to take us closer to Beethoven’s true intentions than any previous edition. It has been a labour of love for Del Mar, who spent ten years researching the different versions of each symphony (there are 20 for the ninth alone). The changes from the familiar 19th-century Breitkopf and H??rtel edition-still in use by many orchestras-run into the hundreds and most are small. But such is Del Mar’s enthusiasm, that when he tells you an addition of mutes to the violins in the slow movement of the sixth symphony is “pretty earth-shattering” you almost believe him. There are genuinely striking changes too, especially in the last movement of the ninth. (Several conductors, including John Eliot Gardiner and Simon Rattle, have taken up Del Mar’s interpretation.)
Del Mar’s new edition pays tribute to the bewitching power of musical scores. The power comes from their paradoxical nature. They have an immense authority, akin to the “aura” Walter Benjamin said attached to the unique work of art, and yet they are not equivalent to the work itself. You can’t point to Beethoven’s fifth, as you can at the Mantegna Crucifixion in the National Gallery. Like a novel, a symphony exists as a set of written symbols, which can be endlessly reproduced. Unlike a novel, a symphony is not identical with its written form. A copy of Pere Goriot actually is the work as Balzac conceived it; whereas my miniature score of Beethoven’s fifth is only a set of instructions. It is no more Beethoven’s symphony than a recipe for cr?me br?l?e is a cr?me br?l?e. Only when actualised in performance do those symbols turn into the musical work that resounded in Beethoven’s inner ear. Or do they?
When a pianist plays a Bach Partita, many in the audience will know the piece, and some of them may even bring the score. The pianist can interpret it, he can distort it, he can get it plain wrong. The one thing he cannot do is realise it. This is what makes the performance of classical music a sado-masochistic “extreme occasion,” as Edward Said has…