The Boston Symphony Orchestra has scheduled consecutive performances of all nine Beethoven symphonies in a series of 4 programs beginning Oct. 22, 2009. Program 1 is previewed here by Karl Henning.
The notion of performing all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies in just over a fortnight was, I thought, a very musical response on maestro James Levine’s part to the Zeitgeist of safer orchestral programming in the face of tougher economic times. It’s a project, though, which reaches back to the very early days of the Boston Symphony. Georg Henschel led the orchestra in all nine, in each of his three seasons, 1881-1884. This feat was not repeated until March of 1927, when in observance of the centenary of Beethoven’s death, Serge Koussevitzky led the BSO in all nine symphonies (and more besides) in one week. Koussevitzy once again led all nine, though over a broader span of time, on Tuesday afternoon concerts in the 1933-1934 season.
Largely a symphony wherein Beethoven works (with great assurance) within the ‘bounds’ of his forebears Haydn and Mozart, the First nonetheless starts out with a brilliant touch of harmonic misdirection. A symphony normally begins by establishing a key, which in the case of Beethoven’s First is C Major. But the opening chord does not belong to C Major (let alone establish it): it is a C dominant-seventh chord, resolving to F. Even the next chord, G dominant-seventh – which ought to “fix” things – winds up resolving ‘deceptively’ to A minor. Beethoven does indeed set C Major as the key, but in his impertinence, he doesn’t do it by rehearsing for the nth time the hoary old I-IV-V-I. The clearest indication in the First, though, of the dramatic changes which Beethoven will impose upon the genre of the symphony, is in the sped-up third movement, which is still labeled “Minuet,” but is in fact already a characteristic Scherzo.
Neither does Beethoven mask his ambitions in the Second Symphony, but sets immediately out for new musical territory. The first movement of a symphony has given the name to sonata-allegro form: i.e., Allegro, at a fast (cheerful) pace; and the norm had been established by Beethoven’s time of starting out at tempo. It was relatively seldom that Mozart (e.g.) began the first movement with a slow introduction (though we note that Beethoven has now elected to do so with each of his first two symphonies). With the first movement of the Second, it is not the fact of a slow introduction that is any novelty, but its scale: the movement begins with 33 measures at a very slow pace, Adagio molto. This compared to (for example) 16 measures at Adagio which begin Haydn’s “London” Symphony (? 104), or 15 measures at Adagio which introduce the first movement of Mozart’s great E-flat Symphony (? 39, K.543).
The main event on this first program, though, is obviously the great C minor symphony, the Fifth – whose opening motive is one of the most recognizable bits of music on the planet. So much has already been written about Beethoven’s Opus 67, and, if you are reading this the chances are you already know something about classical music, and you could probably write a paragraph about Beethoven’s Fifth, yourself – that I shall content myself with a mere editorial remark about the third movement.
Kurt Masur’s set of Beethoven symphonies from the early 1990s with the Gewandhausorchester was the first recording of the edition prepared by Peter Gülke, an edition whose most salient feature perhaps is the restoration of a repeat sign from the autograph score, which changes the overall form of the third movement Scherzo from ABA’ (as it has traditionally been performed) to ABABA’ (which is how Beethoven designed the Scherzi for the Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, e.g.) I wonder which edition the BSO will be playing.
Fate has played the trickster with Levine’s plans to lead the entire series of nine symphonies, and in all events we wish him a speedy recovery from surgery. (Maestro Levine will return to the BSO podium to lead the orchestra in a program of Beethoven’s Sixth and Seventh symphonies, October 30 and 31, 2009.) It will be most interesting to see what Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos does with these staples, in Levine’s stead for the first program.
- Thursday, 22 October, 10:30 (open rehearsal)
- Thursday, 22 October, 8:00
- Friday, 23 October, 1:30
- Saturday, 24 October, 8:00
- All-Beethoven Program
- The Complete Symphonies – Program I
- Boston Symphony Orchestra
- Symphony Hall
- Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos