AT is hard to imagine that at one time the world existed without the Mona Lisa. Or Hamlet. Or Beethoven's Fifth. Such masterworks seem to have been around forever.
Not only Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but all the other eight that he composed, were played at this year's Edinburgh Festival, which ended last week. Some faithful festivalgoers I know decided that this was more than they could take. Aren't these symphonies -- endlessly the staple of orchestral performance, and recorded till the cows come home -- by now so hopelessly familiar as to be irredeemably hackneyed?
Maybe, for some people. But what they forget is that new generations keep arriving who have the novel experience of hearing Beethoven (or seeing Hamlet) for the first time; and also that one measure of the greatness of such works is if they can still take an audience by the throat when performed with renewed conviction or fresh insight.
To attend performances of all nine symphonies at this festival, as I did, turned out to be a rather surprising mixture of familiarity and unfamiliarity. I was never bored, even by the ones I have heard most often, the ''Pastoral'' (Sixth) for example. This, and the Fifth, were played in one program by the NDR Symphony Orchestra Hamburg, under the conductor Gnter Wand. Hardly a thing of sound and fury, at least until the storm in the third movement, the lyricism of the ''Pastoral'' was played, after a disa rmingly gentle start, with a positive feeling for its loveliness. When the storm began to build, the Beethoven who sweeps you along with an urgent contrasting of hush and noise, climax and softening, was given the works by this orchestra. However well known, the Sixth symphony was still shown to have vividness and the insistent immediacy that forces you to respond, not to something remembered, but to something now.
Oddly, however, it was the playing of several of the other symphonies by orchestras bent on re-creating period authenticity that sticks in the mind. This was different from the seamless but strangely dispassionate modern rendering by the Cleveland Orchestra of the First and Third ''Eroica.''
The authentic approach was taken by Stavanger Symphony Orchestra of Norway, conducted by Frans Brggen, and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment under Sir Charles Mackerras. (Brggen has also conducted the latter orchestra.)
Return to Beethoven tempi
The two orchestras seemed to endow the music with an edge, and even at times a surprising awkwardness, which suggested something of the freshness that early performances of these works must have had. They played the Second, Eighth, Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth.
It is the Ninth (the ''Choral'') that I will most remember. Rather than weighty, ponderous, and grand, it was strikingly alive and jubilant. I took away from it an overpowering sense of triumphant energy. Mackerras explains in the program that the aim was to reinstate Beethoven's own tempi, which he certainly indicated, but which successive interpreters have ignored.
Wagner, for example, in 1873 had suggested ''flexible, changing, tempi'' in the Ninth, quite unlike Beethoven's concept of how it should be played.
So this Edinburgh performance was meant to ''represent Beethoven's Ninth Symphony rather than Wagner's'' wrote Mackerras. The orchestra's remarkable use of old instruments, the exuberance of the soloists, and the obvious excitement of the chorus (the New Company formed in 1990) all contributed to an experience that had one sitting on the edge of one's seat. Not some sort of historical re-creation. More like hearing it for the first time.
Boulez conducts Boulez
When Pierre Boulez conducted his own music at the Playhouse Theatre on the last day of the festival, it was, in the second half, definitely a first time for most of the audience: ''Explosante-Fixe'' was a British premire. A piece for solo ''midi-flute' (the sound of which passes through a digital network) and chamber orchestra, it interplays electronically magnified music with natural sound.
The history of this piece began in 1972, when Boulez wrote a single-page musical tribute to Stravinsky; but the program note informed us that the piece we were hearing, begun in 1991, ''seems destined to be definitive.'' It was greeted with unmistakable enthusiasm by the audience.
I found the intense percussive gaps and spurts of Boulez's 1957 ''Improvisations on two sonnets by Mallarm,'' with the soprano voice winding and whining sinuously, more accessible and memorable. But this may only be a sign that my musical comprehension is about 40 years out-of-date. I remind myself that Beethoven's contemporaries sometimes found his music impossible or difficult, and that the initially incomprehensible can, given time, become amazingly popular.
Popularity seems to be just about all there is to Emmanuel Chabrier's comic operetta ''L'Etoile.'' The production by Opera North, based at the Grand Theatre in Leeds, England, was frilly and silly, with costumes and sets suitable for a staging of Humpty-Dumpty or Jack and Jill. It had moments of ineffable dottiness and rather predictible slapstick. The singing was good enough, but to make this mix of Christmas pantomime and Gilbert-and-Sullivan crossed with Offenbach (though often without his bite) work, i t needed to keep the audience guessing more. A lovable piece of something-and-nothing, certainly, but I wanted to clutch my sides laughing, and couldn't somehow.
One of the really unforgettable performances at this festival was a play without words (though with some noises) from Berlin called ''The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other'' by Peter Handke. This is large-scale mime, with humanity streaming through in all its variety: hundreds of different people living out their differences as they appear and disappear in the beachlike setting. A lightness of observational humor that Jacques Tati would have appreciated is continuously shading off into a sad absurdity. On e can only say, if it comes your way, don't miss it.
I'm not so sure about Canadian director Robert Lepage's ''The Seven Streams of the River Ota,'' seen near the start of the festival. Part of the problem was because it had been woefully under-rehearsed and its dialogue was disjunctive and as slow in its delivery as opera recitative.
Yet Lepage's inventiveness worked memorably in a long flashback sequence acted within a confined space of mirrors and windows. It was an odd and somewhat aimless piece of theater, yet I'm glad I saw it.