Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is widely viewed as one of the greatest compositions in the western musical canon and is among the most performed works in the world.
Yet according to one conductor audiences are continually being misled because orchestras play it too slowly, 20 minutes too slowly to be precise.
Buckinghamshire-born Benjamin Zander, the musical director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, has recorded a zippy new version with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra which will see the usual 100 minute score slashed to just 80.
He intends to release it in June along with an accompanying disc – 160 minutes in length – explaining why the acceleration has occurred.
“There are indeed many recordings nowadays that claim to have followed Beethoven’s intentions in the matter of tempo, but none does so completely. Not even close,” Mr Zander, told the classical music blog Slipped Disc.
“It is, many would argue, also the most influential work in the entire history of western music. Some might even go as far to claim that it is the greatest symphony ever composed.
“In any event, it seems important to have a performance that faithfully does everything that Beethoven wanted.”
Although Beethoven included clear tempo marks in the symphony, Mr Zander claims they were never intended to be taken literally. He points to the slow movement which includes a fanfare that when played at a traditional pace sounds more like a dirge.
“The fanfare usually sounds nothing like the bracing event bristling with energy and majestic impatience, that Beethoven intended,” said Mr Zander.
Likewise in the Maestoso passage, the chorus should sing the words Gotterfunken (divine spark) twice at exactly the same tempo, but Mr Zander claims they struggle to manage it in current arrangements.
“There is a simple reason: the Maestoso is invariably played well under Beethoven’s tempo, therefore making a correct connection with the following section impossible,” he added.
The Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, is the final complete symphony by Beethoven, composed between 1822 and 1824, when he was deaf.
Commenting on the blog, the Dutch composer John Borstlap said this disability may have led him to score the piece too slowly.
“We know that Beethoven was deaf and composers often imagine their music faster in the lightweight space of their mind than they would assess in reality, where the sound is influenced by many physical factors,” he said.
However classical music commentator Norman Lebrecht told The Telegraph that it was a shame to speed up the work.
“One of the best things about Beethoven’s Ninth is that no performance ever feels too long. So making it go faster seems to me a cause for regret,” he said.
“He will furnish it with a discussion disc running 160 minutes, which will make the symphony seem very short indeed.”