"Tradition ist Schlamperei!" Gustav Mahler once famously declared, "Tradition is sloppiness!" Or more to the point: Just because a work has often been approached a certain way does not necessarily mean that way is right.
On Monday night in Symphony Hall, the conductor Benjamin Zander, a devoted Mahlerian, returned his attention to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and in particular, to rethinking some conventional approaches to this most canonical of scores.
More specifically, interpreters through the years have struggled to make sense of Beethoven's metronome markings, and prior to the arrival of the early music movement, many simply dismissed these markings — which generally call for tempos much faster than you would think — as odd and unreliable, or worse, as subverting the expressive profundity of the music. In recent decades, however, conductors such as Roger Norrington, John Eliot Gardiner, and in his own previous work, Zander himself, have argued for taking Beethoven's tempo markings at something closer to their face value.
On Monday night, the Ninth delivered by Zander and the Boston Philharmonic was a fascinating and often briskly exciting ride, even allowing for the occasional misadventure. The brisk tempo choices in the outer movements in particular helped unlock this music's primal energy and inner rhythmic drive. Yet it was in the second movement that tempo experiments turned the most radical, with Zander taking the trio section not just presto but "prestissimo," in observance of a marking in Beethoven's original manuscript. One could see the goal in view, but with woodwinds and strings audibly scrambling as the tempo pushed the limits of playability, the results, at least on Monday, seemed to raise objections of their own.
In the finale, another interpretive revision, unrelated to tempo, came off strikingly: Zander had both his choral and orchestral forces execute a massive diminuendo at the end of the line "steht vor Gott" ("stands before God"). We are used to hearing this climactic moment belted out by the chorus in a sustained fortissimo, but here, the sound tapered rapidly like an enormous balloon releasing its air. Musicologists can debate the textual arguments for this dramatic change, but whether Beethoven intended it or not, on Monday the gesture felt oddly contemporary, a kind of modern deus-absconditus revision of an earlier era's full-throated utopian pieties.
Not everyone in the capable quartet of vocal soloists — Michelle Johnson, Sarah Heltzel, Yeghishe Manucharyan, Robert Honeysucker — seemed equally open to new interpretive approaches, though the palpably committed Philharmonic players and the spirited singers of the Chorus Pro Musica appeared game to try anything. The evening opened with a boldly profiled rendition of Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture; the program repeats on Thursday at Worcester's Mechanics Hall and on Friday again in Symphony Hall.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.