Beethoven is played to a new/old beat. Composer's long-ignored tempos get fresh test

THE issue of Beethoven's metronome markings may not seem vital to most concertgoers. But David Zinman's two recent Carnegie Hall concerts with his Baltimore Symphony have made a significant first step in resolving a longstanding controversy. For as long as musicians have seriously begun to care about returning to composers' manuscripts in an attempt to better understand what was intended, the issue of Beethoven's metronome markings has been consistently swept under the intellectual and interpretive carpet.

The standard argument against these markings has gone something like this: In Beethoven's day, Johannes Nepomuk Maelzel had only recently invented a device to allow composers to ensure that the tempos at which they conceived and ``heard'' the music in their minds' ear would be translatable to the performers.

Beethoven's markings were all rather peppy, and were probably accepted unquestioningly by conductors of the day. But then again, conductors up until Wagner's time were not so consumed with personal interpretation as they were to become, in part because the music was not so old, and because they were performing mostly new music, only occasionally going back to an older work to re-explore it.

Wagner changed all that. His Beethoven interpretations became legendary, and part of that legend was due to his slowing down of the tempos to show, in his view, the real soul of the music. By Wagner's day as well, orchestras had become considerably larger as a matter of course, and new music considerably denser, so everything was ``slower'' than in the era that included Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

After Wagner came the age of the showman conductor - the autocrat of the orchestra, who was on the podium as much to serve his own ego and his own career as to serve music. At the same time, new music was becoming increasingly complex, atonal - and unpopular. So conductors went back to past masters for their programs. The star conductors were as often as not interested in effects, whether or not they were faithful to the music, and eventually the myth arose that the metronome markings were wrong, based on a faulty early version of a device that had by now become indispensable to all musicians.

Despite a few well-intended asides throughout the century, it is only now, in an age when early-music performance practice has so irrevocably influenced the way we hear classical and baroque music, that we are getting around to reexamining those tempos and seeing what they really mean to the music.

Enter David Zinman, not so much as an innovator, but as one who has decided that a serious and conscientious effort must be made to begin incorporating what the ``original instruments'' movement has been discovering about the way music may have been performed, and heard, when it was written. Mr. Zinman does not believe in throwing out modern instruments or in replacing steel strings with gut. Rather he wants orchestras, or at least his orchestra, to learn how to play with the lightness of touch that will allow for maximum articulation at the rather unfamiliar velocities at which Beethoven's music passes at these ``new'' tempos.

What this translates to, on the basis of his two programs, is a newly vigorous Beethoven, more humorous, more volatile, less epically grand, more thrillingly emotive and evocative. The Sixth Symphony, ``Pastorale,'' suddenly shows off its dance roots, gaining a fleet buoyancy without losing its purely pictorial programmatic overtones. More than ever, the work has an unmistakable Beethoven sound.

The Fifth gains in structural unity when the Andante con moto is properly played as an extension of the work's basic pulse rather than as a pronounced meditative aside. Zinman manages to solve the problems of getting a relatively large orchestra (though he used only six basses) to play these feisty tempos with a minimum of effort and a maximum of clean articulation.

Not everything about Zinman's approach is fully thought through.

He was unable to make much of the Violin Concerto, because in Sergiu Luca he had a soloist more concerned with surface detail than with communicating the emotional range of this most remarkable of pieces.

Nevertheless, Zinman's approach is an important step in the right direction. It is high time young conductors began to turn to Beethoven rather than Furtw"angler, Klemperer, or Karajan, for their interpretive models; Zinman's efforts may finally bring on the revolution.

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