People in the music business have been badmouthing the New York
Philharmonic. And why? Because the orchestra played all nine Beethoven symphonies at
special concerts at the start of its new season.
That, Ive been told, is
"unimaginative programming." Its a cynical ploy to sell tickets, by
turning the Philharmonic into the classical equivalent of a top-40 radio station. The
public, however, either disagreed, or responded to the ploy, since the concerts sold out.
And I side with the public. I went to the series largely out of curiosity --
"Everyones so negative," I kept thinking, "so I wonder what the
concerts will really be like" -- but I ended up enthralled.
Its a privilege, for one
thing, to hear all nine Beethoven symphonies, close together, and live. If classical music
means anything, these works are at its core; if they dont shift something deep
inside you, then something went wrong. The first two symphonies have a lightweight
reputation, but in fact theyre remarkably tough and lively, and seem light only when
you compare them to what came afterward -- to the third symphony (the "Eroica"),
lets say, where Beethoven reaches heights of both logic and feeling that music had
never known before. In the "Eroica," even the connections of one phrase to
another are astonishing, the way one idea, refusing to tie itself neatly into a bow,
mutates instead into its successor. For the first time in history -- just in time for the
industrial revolution -- struggle and progress entered the heartbeat of music.
In the fifth symphony, the struggle is overt. Beethoven cant just end the piece;
he fights to find a conclusion, exploding from darkness into blazing sunlight. And in the
sixth he does the same thing, though its easy to minimize his effort, since the
work, nicknamed the "Pastoral," tells a peaceful story, about a day in the
countryside. But when a storm precedes the finale, it has a metaphorical meaning as well
as a literal one, and Beethovens joy when the sun reappears is deep enough to tell
us that theres more at stake than the weather.
In the ninth symphony, the struggle
gets volcanic. Beethoven shows us how hard it is to end the work; before he can finish, he
tears his work apart, quoting themes from the first three movements. All of them were
powerful when we first heard them, but now, with rough gestures of musical dismissal, he
sweeps them all away.
By this time the instruments of the
orchestra arent enough for him; he needs to bring in voices, representing all
humankind, leaping into a joy, which (if we read the Schiller poem Beethoven uses for his
text) was always there for us to find. At the conclusion, he throws away all restraint,
turning into a blatant holy fool, howling with happiness and freedom as his last symphony
Of course, not much of this would come through in bad performances. So here I have to
honor Kurt Masur, the Philharmonics music director, who came in for special abuse
("stodgy" might have been the mildest criticism I heard) from my doubting
friends in the business. In panel discussions at the start of the series, he said two
things that, I have to admit, are red flags for anyone whos been around the
classical music world long enough to grow cynical. He said he thinks the symphonies have
such moral force that they need to be heard, and that no matter how often he
conducts them, theyre always new.
These phrases, especially the
second, are suspect because theyre what everyone says. How else do you justify
playing the same music over and over? But, to judge from his performances, Mr. Masur meant
every word. Let's not forget that he spent most of his life in the former East Germany,
where he was a notable voice for liberty, and where -- since telling the truth in words
was forbidden -- truthful music could have a force we (in what used to be called the free
world) can barely imagine.
The first concert, Ill admit,
was a waste. The first symphony sounded slack, and before it, a bad programming mistake,
came the four overtures Beethoven wrote for his opera "Fidelio." Detached from
the opera these either have no audible connection, or (in the case of the "Leonora
No. 2" and "Leonora No. 3") are such close clones that you wonder why
you're hearing them together. A better choice would have been early Beethoven chamber
music, from the time of the first symphony, or symphonies by earlier composers like Haydn,
which would have showed us why, in his time, Beethoven sounded so surprising.
With the second symphony, though, things greatly improved. Mr. Masur has
conducted these works repeatedly (the seventh symphony alone, according to a note in the
program, 111 times while he was music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra), and
his experience is one of his greatest strengths. That was especially true in the
"Eroica," where he knew exactly where each phrase stood, and exactly where it
was going. He took the seventh symphony, apart from the slow movement, in a thrilling
rush, and found a completely new, larger sound for the ninth, which he made stand out from
the others as a grander, more profound and more public statement.
His commitment showed most of all in
some of the slow movements, especially in the second (where he shaped the music with
detached but perceptible affection), the third and the seventh symphonies. His comparative
strength in slow movements might partly be the result of some draw-hacks in his conducting
-- his beat, for instance, can get rigid when the music gets fast, stiffening the rhythm,
and threatening to slow the tempo. (Which made his power in the seventh symphony, where
most of the music is fast and rhythmic, even more impressive.) Nor does he have much range
once the music gets loud. He never conducted a true fortissimo, and he underplayed
many of the dynamic contrasts that, properly underlined, make this music burst all
conventional bounds and grow truly wild.
The orchestra, too, has its
weaknesses. The Philharmonics advertising last year stressed the musicians
virtuosity, and thats accurate. But some of the principal players -- the woman with
short, dark hair, for instance, who played first flute for seven of the nine symphonies --
stood out too much, as if their virtuosity meant too much to them. The entire horn
section, extraordinary inst instrumentalists sometimes engaged in blatant self-promotion,
at their worst conveying just one message: "Yo! Listen to us!"
The first violins are weak; they
sounded crude and prosaic in the slow movement of the ninth, in great contrast to the
violas, whose purity was a high musical achievement. Incredibly, the back stands of the
first violins sometimes dragged behind the rest (especially in the sweeping upwaid scale
at bars 210 to 212 in the slow movement of the seventh.) The basses are the strongest
section -- noble, precise and always true to the musics inner meaning.
But these problems couldnt
completely stand in Beethovens way. Though Im left with just one question. Why
didnt the Philharmonic promote the cycle more? The obvious answer, of course, is
that they didnt have to; the tickets sold quickly. But they missed a great
opportunity. With a little energy and imagination, they might have made all New York talk
about Beethoven, which would have been good for them, for us, for classical music -- and
might even have given the city a brief, striking moment of spiritual renewal.
Wall Street Journal, October 15, 1998