Helping Beethoven with the Tenth: an intriguing, pointless exercise. Experimental work is heard at revamped Carnegie Hall
New York — Beethoven's Tenth Symphony! - how the fantasies of musicologists and music fanciers have been stirred, over the past 160 years, by the thought of what this never-finished work might have sounded like. And now Barry Cooper, a Scottish musicologist, has done a paste-and-sew job on various sketches from the composer's notebooks and produced his version of a ``first movement'' for this work. It was given its United States premi`ere at Carnegie Hall by the American Symphony Orchestra, with Jos'e Serebrier conducting.
Beethoven had put together a movement in his head, and actually played it for a friend, but all he had on paper were some sketches. Dr. Cooper worked with those sketches, penned over at least 12 years, and also a general compositional theory based on what Beethoven had written earlier in his career.
What was heard at Carnegie Hall, apart from sounding underrehearsed, was also surpassingly tedious. Though it was all recognizably Beethoven, it sounded thin - both orchestrally and inspirationally. Clearly, melodic bits can be woven together by anyone with the skill, but Beethoven's visionary aspect can never be imitated. So, to these ears, the entire exercise proved pointless, and smacked of a publicity stunt.
It is the sort of thing the American Symphony Orchestra, an excellent New York ensemble, has resorted to in the past. Mr. Serebrier buried the Beethoven between a crude and noisy performance of Holst's ``The Planets'' and a fairly raucous, unsatisfactory account of the third act of Wagner's ``The Flying Dutchman,'' both of which were evidently meant to be personal showcases. They also sounded better prepared than the Beethoven.
This was the first time this fall that I had heard a concert in Carnegie Hall without the acoustical panels the management has been experimenting with since the new season opened. Over the summer, the Carnegie people agreed that their remarkable restoration, unveiled two seasons ago, has created different acoustics inside the hall, and that the problems - to these ears always correctable, but to others' so dire as to be ruinous - needed to be addressed. For now, this addressing translates into nine hinged, two-part absorptive panels deployed in various configurations along the back and sides of the stage.
Before the restoration, the Carnegie acoustics flattered even second-rate orchestras, and conductors could always rely on those acoustics to cover technical problems or lack of preparedness. After the overhaul, a wonderful reverberation was introduced into the hall, as well as a tendency to raucousness and muddiness if the orchestra was not meticulously balanced in a pre-concert rehearsal.
The panels have made a dramatic difference in acoustical clarity even in the densest of music. When I heard the above-cited Holst without the panels, I was struck by how really ugly musical crudeness can sound in Carnegie Hall. With the panels, I was struck at how thrilling great playing can sound - as when the Philadelphia Orchestra charged electrifyingly through the Mussorgsky/Ravel ``Pictures at an Exhibition'' under the baton of Yuri Temirkanov. It was the first time I have ever heard anyone show the really Russian side of Ravel's brilliant orchestration (how clearly Mr. Temirkanov proved that Ravel knew his Rimsky-Korsakov). No matter what Temirkanov asked of the orchestra, the textures were always clear, the blends smooth, which has not always been the case with this orchestra in the pre-panels acoustics.
When the Dallas Symphony came to town, it offered Stravinsky's ``Firebird'' ballet as its showcase, and while the hall no longer enriches thin string tone or whining winds, it is, with panels in place, considerably fairer to orchestral strengths. Thus, when music director Eduardo Mata chose, however infrequently, to exploit colors and timbres rather than just the lesser degrees of volume, it was tangible and beguiling.
The Buffalo Philharmonic, under its music director, Semyon Bychkov, did not exactly sound like a major ensemble, but when he, too, chose to exploit colors - in this case the rich, dark ominousness of Rachmaninoff's ``Symphonic Dances,'' the orchestra took on a lovely glow, and the hall reverberated particularly with rich bass.
The big surprise, in terms of orchestral excellence, was the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, whose music director, Jes'us Lop'ez-Cobos, offered a rare account of Reger's Hiller Variations. Not only was the performance alert, richly nuanced, and utterly German in gesture, but the orchestra proved to be an uncommonly fine ensemble. It was just the sort of performance this vibrant and grandiose work needs to win new friends to its intricacies and orchestral extravagance.
Finally, Mahler has never brought out the best in the new Carnegie, yet David Zinman's reading of the composer's First Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra was a major triumph for the hall as well as for the conductor and orchestra. It was the freshest and most spontaneous account I have heard in a long time, and the BSO sounded like the noble instrument it is, and the hall resounded with a clarity and warmth that suggested this orchestra's own noble home, Symphony Hall.