in: Reviews

November 10, 2009

Maazel Steps In to Lead BSO Beethoven’s Eighth and Ninth

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Veteran conductor Lorin Maazel deputized for the still indisposed James Levine to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra in four concerts of Beethoven symphonies, the latter two of which were performances of the Eighth and Ninth.  The orchestra was fortunate to secure maestro Maazel’s services on such short notice, and those onstage seemed grateful to have been placed in his capable hands.

Maazel, a child prodigy who was conducting major orchestras from a very tender age, is renowned as a master of baton technique. He is able to communicate the minutest detail of his interpretive wishes by demonstrating what he wants with a minimum or verbal instruction. This is something most orchestras understandably like these days – rehearsals become more efficient with less talk, they say, and more music-making ensues. There was certainly music-making happening in these concerts, and Maazel’s readings exhibited all of this eminent conductor’s present strengths and weaknesses, the latter of which have been noted by New York critics while Maazel was in his Music Directorship role there with the New York Philharmonic. There, they all admired Mr. Maazel’s efficiency and control, but found that he had a tendency to “micro-manage,” as they put it, every single little detail in the score, so that characterful playing and spontaneity of performance was often sacrificed for precision. I was never quite sure what these critics meant by this, but now I think I understand.

The Beethoven Eighth is a brusquely robust and mercurial work with much rough-hewn humor. Written at a time when Beethoven’s growing deafness must have been sorely vexing him, one can even sense an element of frustration and impatience in this music. It seems never to rest, and this restlessness is best heard when the symphony is left to unfurl in a completely naturalistic manner. This Mr. Maazel seemed unwilling to do. Fussy phrasings and changes of tempi often intruded and impeded the symphony’s elemental flow. As a result, the performance, while well played, seemed to lurch a bit too much, and there is already much lurching purposefully written into this music. After the applause, I tried to understand why I was so puzzled by what I had just heard, and I then remembered a splendid BSO/Haitink performance from several years ago that seemed to have everything just the way it ought to have been. If only Mr. Maazel had been a bit less intrusive…

Many of the same issues arose under Mr. Maazel’s direction in the Ninth Symphony. Beautifully played by the orchestra throughout and rousingly sung by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in the finale, this challengingly disjunctive work often failed to cohere, and there were niggling vocal issues with the quartet of soloists.  Michael Polanzani, who should know better, in his solo repeatedly singularized the German word for “brothers” by ignoring the pluralizing umlaut above the u in Brüder, and at times the entire quartet seemed to be over-reaching, even applying an unfortunate and inappropriate crescendo to their final fermata.

Yet, the Beethoven Ninth has the power and virtue of rising above most human shortcomings, and this performance, while not particularly sublime, nonetheless reminded us of this great symphony’s extraordinary breadth of human emotions, and its still sadly unrealized plea for universal loving brotherhood among humankind.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 29 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

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