- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2000

Orchestras that overprogram works by Ludwig van Beethoven in their concerts have been one of my pet peeves for years.

Such dreary predictability has turned many of our symphony orchestras into musty museums offering nothing new. When Leonard Slatkin launched the National Symphony Orchestra's now-annual Beethoven Festival four seasons ago, I regarded it as a bold move. By essentially removing Beethoven from the regular concert season, Mr. Slatkin was able to free up slots for the great number of new or previously unfamiliar pieces he has been introducing cheerfully to Washington audiences ever since.

During this season's Beethoven Festival — under way at the Kennedy Center — maestro Slatkin has done himself one better. He has dusted off the great Beethoven himself and is presenting several of Beethoven's works as rescored by Gustav Mahler near the end of the 19th century. Ah, you say, so now we're going to hear Beethoven with cowbells, choirboys and platoons of offstage brass. Well, not really. What Mahler did with Beethoven's music and why he did it are more interesting — and subtle — than that.

Most American classical music lovers of baby-boomer age and younger have lived in an era in which musical "authenticity" has been promoted widely. This means scaling back orchestras that perform works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, not using modern pianos when performing Johann Sebastian Bach keyboard concertos and employing period instruments whenever possible.

But period-music fanatics ignore that history marches on. During and after the time of Beethoven, instruments improved in structure, sound quality and versatility. The pool of excellent musicians grew, and orchestras became larger — as did the concert venues in which they performed. Audiences loved the changes. By the late 19th century, music of earlier times, now played in less intimate halls and with much larger forces, may have begun to lack the external punch and internal clarity that Beethoven and other composers of earlier eras would have expected.

Enter Mahler. Recognizing the inherent problems in realizing Beethoven's intentions with the newer, larger and better-trained forces at his disposal — in which the substantially augmented strings often buried the woodwinds, flutes and other instruments beneath a smothering curtain of sound — Mahler tinkered not with Beethoven's notes, but with his scoring. By doubling woodwinds here and pulling back the first and second violins there, Mahler intended to reveal the interesting underpinnings of Beethoven's music that late-19th-century audiences could no longer hear. To be sure, Mahler occasionally added one of his patented broad ritardandos to increase the drama. But Beethoven, as "retouched" by Mahler, sounds remarkably fresher and much brighter — although at times you're challenged to figure out just why that is.

Mr. Slatkin discussed some of this musical history and gave before-and-after examples of Mahler's "improvements" Thursday evening before launching into the Mahler version of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The talk was entertaining and informative, as was the opening movement. Mr. Slatkin accidentally had been given the original score — not the Mahler revision — and was forced to begin from that score while an orchestra member scurried around backstage looking for the right one. The score was discovered eventually and was passed up, row by row, by the first violins as they sawed away. Great entertainment, and you won't get this on a CD.

All in all, the Mahler version of the Fifth was a revelation. The internal activities — the notes you often don't hear — were revealed with greater clarity, leading to a greater appreciation of Beethoven's compositional genius as well as Mahler's insights. The occasional tempo changes — ritardandos and accelerandos — added a real flair to a piece already loaded with drama. The only slightly jarring effect was the augmentation of the piccolo part in the finale by the addition of flutes. This created a Sousa-like effect that was unintentionally comical for an American audience.

Thursday's concert featured two versions of Beethoven's famous Fifth Symphony. The concert opened, intriguingly, with Franz Liszt's solo piano transcription of the work as performed by pianist Frederic Chiu. Piano transcriptions had an interesting history in the 19th century. Popular pianists such as Liszt would score for the piano much of the popular orchestral and operatic music of the day, playing these transcriptions for large audiences on barnstorming tours across Europe and elsewhere.

Liszt's transcription of Beethoven's Fifth is uncommonly sensitive and literate, if occasionally bombastic. From the thunderous opening and closing octaves, through the semifugal passages of the slow movement, to the jarring tempo shifts of the third, Liszt's transcription demonstrates that he really understood what Beethoven was about. The transcription is realized orchestrally — at times you can hear the instruments beneath the pianist's fingers. The work is a tour de force.

It also is supremely difficult, but Mr. Chiu gave it a valiant try. Was he perfect? No. Did he drop a bucket of notes in the outer movements? Yes. Did some of the transcription's rapid passage-work morph, under Mr. Chiu's hands, into inadvertent tone-clusters? Yes.

But Mr. Chiu gave an exciting and inspired reading of the piece. The imperfections of the difficult outer movements were redeemed by the beauty of the bel-canto sonorities created by Mr. Chiu in the inner movements, where the tenor parts, in particular, sang with a clarity and sensitivity that would have impressed the always-picky Frederic Chopin.

Even attempting this transcription took a lot of courage. Mr. Chiu acquitted himself admirably, tone clusters and all.

The NSO's Beethoven Festival continues with a varied program through Sept. 16 in various venues at the Kennedy Center. There were a surprising number of empty seats at Thursday's season opener. If you're interested in seeing and hearing old Beethoven in some new musical clothing, give the box office a call. You might be able to score some really good seats.


WHAT: The National Symphony Orchestra's Beethoven Festival

WHERE: The Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, Millennium Stage and Terrace Theater

WHEN: 6 p.m. today, chamber music of Schubert, Haydn and Beethoven (Millennium Stage); 8:30 p.m. today, Beethoven-Mahler String Quartet in F minor and Symphony No. 3 (Concert Hall); 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, pianist Claude Frank and violinist Pamela Frank perform Beethoven chamber music (Terrace); 6 p.m. Thursday, chamber music of Schubert and Beethoven (Millennium Stage); 7 p.m. Thursday, Beethoven-Mahler Overture to "Coriolan" and Symphony No. 7, Bach-Mahler suite (Concert Hall); 8:30 p.m. Friday and Sept. 16, Beethoven-Mahler Symphony No. 9 (Concert Hall).

TICKETS: $21 to $72. Millennium Stage performances are free.

PHONE: 202/467-4600 or 800/444-1324

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