It didn't take long after Beethoven's death for the composer to become sacred in the eyes -- and ears -- of music lovers. It also didn't take long for a few brave souls to suggest that maybe this titan, this god could have made a few little mistakes of judgment.
Launching its fourth annual Beethoven Festival Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center, music director Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra jolted the audience with a demonstration of what happened when one brave soul -- Gustav Mahler -- dared to tamper with the holy text of the Bard of Bonn. The opportunity to hear Beethoven in a new way -- retouched, revised, rearranged, rethought -- was thoroughly riveting.
It may be hard for some folks to swallow the notion of fiddling with Beethoven's scores, especially nowadays, in the wake of the decades-long "authenticity movement" that has attempted to persuade us that going back to exactly what he wrote, and exactly the instruments he wrote it for, is the path to aural salvation. But there were rational reasons for what Mahler tried to do.
After all, everyone knew Beethoven was deaf for much of his creative life; surely it was conceivable that he could have put a few notes onto paper without realizing that they would not translate well in performance. And everyone knew that orchestras had gotten bigger and their instruments more sophisticated since Beethoven's time; surely he would have written differently for such forces had they been at his disposal. Thus, the argument ran, there couldn't be anything wrong with giving correcting blemishes in Beethoven's scores and bringing his ideas up to date.
Mahler bought that argument unflinchingly. He was too talented himself as a composer and conductor to be in total awe of Beethoven, but he was humble enough to be respectful. His compelling alterations -- extra wind players here, shifts in dynamics there -- certainly change the way the music sounds. But Mahler's Beethoven is still, at heart and soul, Beethoven.
The Symphony No. 5, which was the sole focus of Thursday's program, provides a great showcase for Mahler's carefully reasoned changes. As he will throughout the festival, Slatkin and the orchestra presented examples of the before-and-after differences in the score. In this case, they include Mahler's use of horns in places where Beethoven couldn't (valve-less horns simply didn't have the notes); assorted modifications that enable musical lines usually lost in performance to jump out at you; and, in the finale, a pumped-up piccolo part (Slatkin joked about "Gustav Philip Sousa").
But the performance of the Fifth that followed was not just a sonic show-and-tell; it was a weighty, carefully thought-out, highly charged interpretation.
That distraction over, it was possible to concentrate on what Slatkin was doing with phrasing and, especially, tempos. In its own way, his molding of the piece was as interesting as the re-scoring, and complemented Mahler's desire to unleash the full power of the symphony. Slatkin's slow-down at the end of the first movement (he credited Mahler with the idea), his gentle stretching out of the second movement's close, and his deliberate pacing for the finale's coda harkened back to a venerable era of conducting, when personality, not just notes, were allowed to sound.
Aside from an occasional frayed edge, the NSO played richly, incisively. The violas and cellos, in particular, poured on the tone; the horns packed quite a punch.
There was another engagingly "inauthentic" account of Beethoven's Fifth in the first half of the concert -- Franz Liszt's miraculously faithful, colorful, finger-busting transcription for solo piano. Frederic Chiu performed it with terrific energy and expressive imagination; the few notes that slipped through his fingers were of no consequence. He never let Liszt's treatment sound like a stunt; rather, Chiu made it possible to imagine that Beethoven had intended the music for the keyboard all along.
Few pianists bother tackling the Liszt transcriptions, just as few orchestras even dream of trying Mahler's revisions. In the end, the music world will invariably prefer original Beethoven, and that's probably as it should be. But this concert proved how much fun we're missing.
What: National Symphony Orchestra's Beethoven Festival
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington
When: Today through Sept. 16.
Tickets: $19 to $66.
Call: 202-467-4600, 800-444-1324.