NSO/Slatkin in New York (28 February)

Guide to Strange Places [New York Premiere]
Beethoven orch. Mahler
Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

National Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 28 February, 2004
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

In keeping with the NSO’s commitment to American music, the orchestra’s February 28 program at Carnegie Hall opened with the New York premiere of John Adams’s Guide to Strange Places. Conductor Leonard Slatkin led a crisp, energetic, decisively conducted account of a work that might otherwise sound smudgy. But that premiere was inevitably overshadowed by the performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony in the edition of Gustav Mahler

Working from the century-old annotations Mahler made on his own score of the Eroica, Leonard Slatkin led the NSO in a highly stylized, obsessive and undeniably heroic performance of that sublime work, ninety-five years after Mahler himself conducted the work in Carnegie Hall. The February 28 concert was the second in a two-concert series devoted to the orchestral revisions Mahler made to two of Beethoven’s greatest symphonic works. Having been unable to attend the NSO’s performance of the Choral the previous evening, I cannot comment on that concert, but I was altogether taken with this playing of the Eroica, which was preceded by a masterful show-and-tell commentary by Slatkin.

Using the NSO to illustrate the differences between the original and the Mahler-revised versions of the Eroica, Slatkin spent about 20 minutes explaining what Mahler did and why. For a concert in 1900, Mahler wrote, “Owing to an ear complaint that ultimately left him totally deaf, Beethoven lost his indispensable and intimate contact with reality and the world of physical sound,” and then went on to cite the changes in instruments and in the size of the orchestra that had occurred since Beethoven’s death. As Slatkin pointed out, by the time of Mahler, not only were orchestras and concert halls larger than they had been in Beethoven’s day, but the instruments themselves had changed. Slatkin then demonstrated the drama and power a larger orchestra can create by having the NSO play original and Mahler versions of several brief excerpts from the Eroica’s first and third movements.

The differences in how they sounded were striking, even though, as Slatkin explained, Mahler did not actually change very many notes. No melodic lines or harmonies were changed. Most of the alterations were the result of the expansion of the orchestra. Mahler frequently added instruments or doubled others to make sure particular figurations would be heard. For example, the third movement Trio, normally played by three horns, is played by six in Mahler’s version. And to a line normally played by a solo flute, Mahler added a second flute and an E-flat clarinet. And then there are changes in the way the orchestra members are seated, with the second violins seated on the outside, to the right of the conductor, the norm in Beethoven’s and Mahler’s times.

Immediately after his commentary, Slatkin led the NSO in a very emotional rendition of the Eroica that constantly underlined the drama of Mahler’s exaggerated score. Deliberate pauses between phrases and flourishes by the brass further emphasized the drama, and the enlarged brass section provided passages of brilliant sound and color in the thrilling finale. In conducting this performance, Slatkin not only gave a note-for-note modern reading of Mahler’s version, but by his own admission, he attempted to recreate Mahler’s conducting style wherever possible, highlighting drama rather than tradition. It was fascinating to see the normally calm Slatkin ripping into the music in high-old romantic style as he attempted to capture the clarity and emotion Mahler desired, with the NSO members playing as if their lives depended on it. There was a palpable sense of joy throughout the entire performance.

There is of course no way of knowing how well this NSO performance of the Eroica reflected Mahler’s intentions, and as Slatkin himself pointed out, Mahler was well-known as a spontaneous conductor and reports of how he interpreted Beethoven symphonies vary widely. Slatkin did, however, accomplish his own goal of amplifying the power and drama of the Eroica. In sum, this was a fascinating and magnificent performance that provided intriguing insights into Mahler’s approach to Beethoven.

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