How Mahler 'fixed' Beethoven's music


Gustav Mahler famously said "My time will come." He was referring, of course, to his own compositions, which started to enter the musical mainstream roughly 50 years after his death in 1911. The National Symphony Orchestra's extraordinary Beethoven Festival, which concluded Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center, has suggested the much more far-fetched possibility that the time for Mahler's revisions to Beethoven scores may have come, too.

As NSO music director Leonard Slatkin pointed out in remarks to a packed house, we can never really hear Beethoven as the composer's listeners did, for an awful lot of music written after Beethoven has gotten into our ears. It was much the same for Mahler's public at the turn of the 20th century.

Mahler essentially brought Beethoven up to date, reworking the symphonies to take advantage of assets Beethoven didn't have - horns and trumpets that could play all the notes of a scale, for example - and enabling melodic lines to come through in orchestras much larger than those Beethoven knew. Mahler realized he was treading on sacred ground, and that no spot was more consecrated than the Ninth Symphony.

When Mahler conducted the Ninth, the audience was reduced to near-delirium, while critics carped that the symphony had become much more Mahler than Beethoven. There was some truth to that charge, as Slatkin and the NSO demonstrated in a pre-performance demonstration of Beethoven and Beethoven-Mahler.

You only needed to hear the tuba - an instrument unknown to Beethoven - rise up with Wagnerian resonance to underline a point in the first movement to realize how much the original symphony had been changed. But the before-and-after examples also proved how sincere and imaginative Mahler's approach was, how deeply respectful he was to the source.

In one of the most revelatory illustrations, Slatkin had the ensemble play a passage as touched up over the years by Wagner, Richard Strauss, George Szell and Leonard Bernstein, before playing Mahler's version. It was a great reminder that this business of "helping" Beethoven isn't as radical as it may seem.

But the firmest evidence on behalf of Mahler's insight came in the complete performance of the Ninth that followed. It was like standing before the very familiar Mona Lisa, but suddenly noticing for the very first time all that exquisite detail in the distance over her shoulders. In some places - those piercing piccolo trills in the finale, to name one - it felt like going from black-and-white Kansas to Technicolor Oz.

But most of the differences between the Ninth we know and the Ninth Mahler thought we should hear are subtler, aimed simply at a proper balance of instruments and thematic lines. Ultimately, Mahler wanted to unleash every ounce of power in the Ninth Symphony. When he was on the podium, I suspect the intensity of his interpretation carried more weight in the end than his reorchestration.

So it was on Saturday with Slatkin, who did not take a measure for granted. There was a propulsive sweep to the first two movements and remarkable breadth to the "Adagio." The latter could have used a little more tension to sustain the unhurried tempo, but the expressive effect was still compelling.

Slatkin shaped the bold recitative passages for cellos and basses at the opening of the finale as Mahler is believed to have done, creating a more spontaneous and highly charged statement than is usually encountered these days.

If the first violins needed a little more tonal firmness at times, and if a few wind entrances could have been tighter, the NSO delivered a performance of impressive strength and character. J. Reilly Lewis' superbly trained Cathedral Choral Society, singing from memory, produced a sound of Mahlerian richness.

There were some high-note troubles among the soloists, but soprano Norah Amsellem, mezzo Phyllis Pancella, tenor Richard Clement and bass David Pittsinger complemented the performance strongly.

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