Boston Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven Symphony Cycle – 3 [Lorin Maazel]

Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 31 October, 2009
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall

Lorin Maazel. Photograph: Silvia LelliThis week Lorin Maazel picked up the baton for the still-recuperating James Levine in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing Beethoven cycle. Maazel is the third substitute conductor in the orchestra’s sixteen-day survey of the nine symphonies. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the first installment (the First, Second and Fifth symphonies), with Julian Kuerti (the BSO’s Assistant Conductor) taking the second part (the Third and Fourth symphonies).

James LevineThis four-program Beethoven symphony cycle was expected to be the highlight of Levine’s directorship this season, and the maestro’s first go at conducting all nine symphonies (he has never led the Fourth), but his recuperation from unanticipated back surgery late last month has forced his withdrawal from the whole project, including the BSO’s concurrent visit to Carnegie Hall. Disappointing as it must have been for Levine to have had to bow out, it was also a letdown for BSO audiences, who, for this season at least, miss out on a chance to see how the BSO and its music director would have dealt with the challenge of performing all nine symphonies over such a concentrated period.

That said, this concert (as it had the night before) generated plenty of anticipatory excitement, following the BSO’s announcement that the high-powered Lorin Maazel – on very short notice and in his first performances with the orchestra since 1973 – would step in for Levine not only on this program (including an appearance in New York) but in the cycle’s final installment (the Eighth and Ninth symphonies). As soon as Maazel appeared on the Symphony Hall stage, he received a warm and sustained ovation. Facing high expectations, Maazel demonstrated a firm hand from the very start of the concert in which his prodigious technical skills were on constant display.

The evening began with an impressively controlled account of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. Audience members unfamiliar with Maazel’s celebrated conducting technique must have been astonished. His animated gestures were always elegant and amazingly precise, the BSO players responding with virtuosic brilliance and wonderful richness of sound.

This was especially true in the ‘Pastoral’, which, like the Seventh symphony that followed, Maazel conducted with total confidence. But while the performance was technically perfect, it was less than emotionally involving. Admittedly, the Sixth is less biting than Beethoven’s other symphonies. There is no defiance, no triumph. Instead we have a peaceful day in the country, untroubled except for a rather intense thunderstorm. The opening ‘Awakening of cheerful feelings upon reaching the countryside’, was played very fast, delivering a thrilling sense of anticipation. But while it was brimming with energy, it was decidedly lacking in warmth. By contrast ‘Scene by the brook’ was taken very spaciously. The ‘Thunderstorm’ was delivered with more crunch than atmosphere, and the finale was powerful and intense, rather than warm-hearted and glowing.

Overdriven in intensity from the first to last note, the performance of the Seventh had plenty of clout but was similarly deficient in warmth. Maazel constantly emphasized the drama of the work rather than its dance-like qualities. The opening movement was very high-charged, and the finale taken at an extremely fast speed. The Allegretto and the scherzo were also on the brisk side, and noticeably lacking in charm.

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