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Pauline Lerner

Beethoven's Ninth: Joyful and Controversial

October 9, 2007 at 6:25 AM

I heard a fantastic performance of Beethoven’s Ninth a few days ago. It featured the National Symphony Orchestra and the Choral Arts Society of Washington and was conducted by Leonard Slatkin. That symphony is BIG. There were 200 people on stage, including a huge chorus. My reaction to each performance of a work is different, and this one was no exception. I especially noticed the parts that were not big. I don’t think anything was played piano, but sometimes themes were introduced by a few instruments, usually brasses, playing a bare bones version (3 or 4 notes) of the theme to come. Only Beethoven can pull off such long introductory or transitory passages and maintain the tension and excitement. About a dozen times, I was sure that the first singer would start singing in the next measure, but I had to keep hanging on until it finally happened. The bass, Morris Robinson, had a magnificent voice which filled the concert hall. From then on, the music grew bigger and more glorious. I felt myself taking long, slow deep breaths involuntarily, an experience which I seldom have except during meditation in yoga. After a while, I felt like a hot air balloon about to float up and away. The whole experience was stunning and joyful.

After the concert, the experience became interesting in a different way. I told one of my friends that I had been to the concert and loved it. She had read the review by Tim Page in the Washington Post, and he tore the performance to shreds. He blasted Slatkin for using Mahler’s revised, enlarged version of the Ninth and said that the first three movements were played in a manner that was “harsh…forced and joyless.” I told her that I had read the program notes, and Slatkin had explained why he had not played the Mahler version. The critic should have done his homework before writing his devastating review. My friend said that she had grown up listening to a set of records of all of Beethoven’s Symphonies conducted by Toscanini. She loved Toscanini’s performance of the Ninth and couldn’t bear to think of anyone heavily revising this piece.

I reread Slatkin’s notes on the performance He was critical of Mahler's revision of the Ninth even though he had used it in the past. He said, "Mahler did not change the notes, but he completely altered the orchestration" by adding a lot more instruments. Slatkin went on to say that he had heard the symphony conducted by Robert Shaw, and he loved that version. Shaw told him that he was following the path of Toscanini, with whom he had worked on the Ninth. (That's probably the Toscanini version my friend knows and loves.) Those performances had brisk tempi, and Slatkin said that they were full of "vitality and concentration." Slatkin said that his performance this week is "more in line with performances of the Ninth as heard in the 1950's and 60's, with a few nods towards today's scholarship. Woodwinds will be doubled, notes not available to Beethoven will be added, and tempi will be brisk." He described what he is striving for this way: "...the spirit of brotherhood as celebrated by the choral finale must come through unmistakably and unreservedly."

I told my friend that I had serious doubts about anyone rewriting Beethoven’s music because the original is so good, and she agreed. Then we started talking about Handel’s Messiah, which we both have performed numerous times, she as a singer and me as a violinist. We have heard that work performed with all kinds of orchestras – big, small, period style, with changes in the instrumentation – and we have liked them all. Why do we feel such resistance to changing the orchestration of Beethoven’s Ninth?

I wish I could get my hands on Toscanini’s recordings. I have two CDs of the Ninth, one conducted by Karajan and the other by Bernstein. The Bernstein performance, which was given just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is my favorite of the two, but I have no idea whether there were revisions by Mahler or anyone else in either of these two recordings.

I feel sure that Slatkin was successful in achieving his goals for the Symphony, especially the choral movement. I loved the whole performance.

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