When Schiller addressed his Ode to Joy to “you millions” rather than the privileged few, he made it political. Beethoven’s setting of it as the last movement of his Ninth Symphony has always been so, even if to Europeans it feels more politically charged now than ever before. It should always feel radical in a live performance, and that’s what Simon Rattle achieved here with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. One was never quite sure what was going to happen next.
Sometimes the best Beethoven performances have the feeling of there being a ticking motor behind the music, something carrying it along with absolute security. This one didn’t. The opening pages pitted agitated strings that wanted to speed up against a wind theme that wanted to slow things down. There were fleeting moments of messiness. Impetus would wane slightly only to be reaffirmed, making the whole thing feel slightly volatile.
There was much that was fierce: the long chord that drove its way through from the background like a snowplough; the thunder-roll of timpani as the first theme returned. The ferocity took a step back when we got to the glowing slow movement, but those expansive melodies were still something to be fought for. The Ode brought emphatic, communicative singing from the chorus and a quartet of soloists including baritone Florian Boesch and tenor Robert Murray; it ended in a jubilant blaze, but the most striking moment had come with the very first entry of the theme, on cellos and basses, which Rattle held to such a hush that it seemed to be coming from beyond some far horizon.
Iwona Sobotka, who soared through the Beethoven solo soprano lines, had in the first half been the soloist in Berg’s Lulu Suite, her tone luscious, her highest notes teetering on the edge of vulnerability. From the opening moments, glowing with longing and tenderness, to the way the strings dug deep for the elegiac final movement, the orchestra’s performance was one of heightened colour and feverish energy – an unlikely springboard for the Beethoven, but in context an effective one.