Magazine article The Spectator

Four Play

Magazine article The Spectator

Four Play

Article excerpt

Last weekend my iPad sucked me deeper into Beethoven's Ninth Symphony than I thought possible. Deutsche Grammophon and Touch Press have released an app devoted to the work that rendered me slack-jawed with wonder, like a Victorian on his first visit to a cinema.

The app gives you four complete performances of the Ninth: by Ferenc Fricsay with the Berlin Philharmonic (1958); Herbert von Karajan with the same orchestra (1962); Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic (1978); and Sir John Eliot Gardiner with his preposterously named Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (1992). Icons for the performances are next to each other, and the gentlest touch will transport you to and fro.

The technology is a marvel. Bernstein's performance lasts 71 minutes; Gardiner's just 59 - 'a Ninth you can listen to in your lunch hour', as one critic put it; and, of course, each conductor uses rubato to stretch and compress the internal dimensions of the work. Yet the four recordings are aligned so that you don't miss a nanosecond of music by switching from one to the other. Very cool.

Take the so-called 'Turkish' march in the last movement. You can begin with Lenny and the VPO, whose brass parps and dancing piccolos conjure up Sousa; then slide up to Karajan, where the air chills and there's a hint of goose step; then Fricsay, with whom the Berliners are having a much jollier time;

and finally Gardiner, where the lurch to 'period' pitch and tempo makes you feel as if you've stumbled into a different piece of music - light, thrilling and in places unforgivably rushed.

If you want to follow the score, there are three options: the full score, a 'curated' version that highlights selected instruments, and Beethoven's handwritten manuscript.

Each is perfectly aligned with your chosen performance. Or you can try out the app's most delicious gimmick: a 'beat map' of the orchestra in which each instrument is represented by a dot that throbs when it's playing. The pulsating dance produced by Beethoven's manic scherzo is especially fun to watch. I reckon I could spot Karajan simply from the menacing regularity of his throbs. (This app really doesn't do Karajan any favours, by the way: the comparison with Fricsay reveals a level of control-freakery that sits oddly with the symphony's celebration of freedom but definitely reminds you of his past, shall we say. …

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