Holding off its tribute to Gershwinuntil December, the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur led off the season with a Beethoven-symphony cycle, all nine scores presented in chronological order. The idea was predictably damned by some superior people, heavy thinkers who view Beethoven performance as a cynical marketing ploy that shamelessly panders to lazy audiences who insist on hearing the same stuff over and over. I might have found a bit of merit in that sour opinion at one time, but not now. After all, aren’t the Beethoven symphonies central to our musical culture and universally popular for very good reasons? To call a moratorium on such masterpieces just seems silly, rather like an art critic proclaiming the Mona Lisa overexposed and demanding that the canvas be removed from view for a generation.
Perhaps the real problem is that our perception of Beethoven has been blunted over the years by too many indifferent live performances and recordings. But just when the prospect of sitting through the Eroica once again looms as a wearisome duty, along comes a freshly reimagined interpretation played with such passionate commitment and new insight that even the most jaded listener is stirred to reassess his prejudices. It happened not so long ago, when Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw came to town to play the Big Nine. Those concerts were also anticipated with yawns, but as the cycle progressed, audiences – and even some critics – found themselves bowled over by the quality of the music-making and decided that perhaps listening to Beethoven wasn’t so irrelevant after all.
I can’t say that Masur and the Philharmonic offered similar incandescent revelations in the symphonies I heard (Nos. 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7). Still, even if the emotional flames were banked and the musical discourse more solidly traditional than startlingly original, this was superior Beethoven playing by any standard: honestly felt, beautifully proportioned, warmly inflected, and instrumentally distinguished. Actually, this was the orchestra’s first chronological run through the Beethoven symphonies since Arturo Toscanini conducted the cycle in 1942. Thinking back to some of the Philharmonic music directors who have come and gone since then, I wonder if any of them – Rodzinski, Mitropoulos, Bernstein, Boulez, Mehta – could have offered a more musically satisfying traversal than Masur’s. In any case, every concert was packed by enthusiastic audiences who clearly approved of what they heard.