A superb performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, such as Matthias Bamert led last week at the Hollywood Bowl, carries a huge array of incidental baggage. Like a rhinoceros at a tea party, the Ninth lumbered onto the musical scene in 1824, trampled upon even the most liberal-minded of artistic expectations, sent critics back to their ink pots to rummage for new modes of imprecation and invective. The ink on its first printing was scarcely dry when it reached deeply into the soul of the teenage Richard Wagner, who on his own set about creating a transcription of the work for piano solo — that, in pre-stereo days, being the manner in which a listener at home might make the acquaintance of the repertory. He offered his manuscript to Schott, Beethoven’s publisher, who rejected it but rewarded the young firebrand with a bound copy of another Beethoven score, the Missa Solemnis.
Wagner and the Ninth: This was more than a chance encounter. It was Wagner, above any other figure, who shaped the shadow cast by Beethoven’s unruly masterwork over everything in music after its time. Of all the obsessions that played across Wagner’s fevered brow, his worship of this one work served him the best. Essay after essay poured from his pen; in a vast Dionysian stew the names of Homer, Socrates and Beethoven floated freely. When Wagner’s pen faltered, Friedrich Nietzsche took it up, and added the name of Wagner himself to the mix. The reopening of Wagner’s Bayreuth after WWII was signalized not by a Ring newly staged, but by a consecrational performance of the Beethoven Ninth led by Wilhelm Furtwängler; it’s one of the six performances of the Ninth by that conductor currently available on CD. Note the irony: If the government of Israel were to maintain its absurd proscription of Wagner in its music halls and opera houses with any consistency, the Ninth would be added to the no-no list.
In the public view, the bringing in of voices in the finale — with the tune that every schoolboy now knows — is the work’s major innovation, along with the extended length that this elaborate finale requires. (Be glad, by the way, that Beethoven’s quite-long-enough finale makes do with only three of the eight stanzas in Schiller’s “An die Freude.”) From Mendelssohn to Liszt to Mahler, the notion of a finale with voices as apotheosis to a grand symphonic design became one of the prime romantic gambits. But the very opening of the Ninth was to cast an even longer shadow over succeeding musical structures: The first sounds might be off in some distant cloud, their harmonies purposely undefined, out of which — a veritable thunderclap in Beethoven’s case — a theme takes shape. Think of a century of cloudy, from-out-of-nowhere beginnings: the five minutes of dark swirl of Rhine waters under a sustained, ambiguous single chord that starts Wagner’s Ring; the distant quiver that begins every Bruckner symphony and the Mahler First; Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony; the voice in the wilderness at the start of Le Sacre du Printemps (an ancestry that Stravinsky would vigorously disown).
Given the Bowl’s iffy sound system, and the realities of the one-concert–one-rehearsal scheduling, Bamert, Swiss-born (1942), delivered a Ninth remarkable for its direct, no-nonsense power. (To note that he was for many years assistant to George Szell at the Cleveland Orchestra goes some distance to define his qualities.) His tempos were brisk — probably fairly close to Beethoven’s own famously unworkable metronome markings — but not, for today’s ears, trivializing (as they are in some so-called “historically informed” recordings). He obeyed all of Beethoven’s repeat signs, which Bowl conductors are wont to ignore, and also observed Beethoven’s curious stricture calling for a quick segue from slow movement to finale. Above all I admired the clarity of his performance, the fine balance in the gnarled counterpoints in the first movement and the halo spun by the winds in the slow movement. The chorus — John Alexander’s Pacific Chorale — sang its words cleanly, even passionately; the soloists formed a well-balanced, if somewhat underpowered, vocal quartet.
The night was a triumph for Bamert and, thus, for Beethoven. Two nights later there was more of the same, a Fifth Symphony of similar strength and intensity, and a lovely, warm reading by Andreas Haefliger of the Third Piano Concerto. On Friday, with Eri Klas conducting, the goofier Beethoven came to the fore: the Choral Fantasy and the “Battle” Symphony — the latter with the fireworks that the Bowl does better than any other place around.
What are we supposed to make of that Choral Fantasy? That it was a work hastily composed and hastily rushed into print doesn’t quite explain its awfulness; lesser composers have been known to disown better works. That its principal tune, arrived at after long spells of meaningless noodle-noodle, has something to do with “the” melody in the Ninth is not interesting enough to justify the unconscionable empty spaces in the work both before and after the tune arrives. There is one moment worth noting, however; it anticipates a major event in the Ninth where the chorus screams itself toward a deceptive cadence on “Und der Cherub steht vor Gott!” In the Ninth it happens once, and it’s hair-raising. In the Choral Fantasy it’s just something else that happens, and since it happens twice it becomes meaningless. All the empty piano figuration that starts the work, which Norman Krieger dispatched as well as needed, is supposed to represent Beethoven’s style at improv; apparently it was written down post facto by a student. Beethoven should sue.
But there’s nothing better than the Choral Fantasy to make the “Battle” Symphony, which ensued, resound like a masterpiece. Reportedly the Beethoven work most popular with audiences during his lifetime — and, thus, a cause of untold weeping all the way to the bank — it is at least amusing enough to stand as a paradigm of all the second-rate composing of the time. (Mozart’s Musical Joke served the same purpose, even more hilariously, a quarter-century before.) Actually, there are a few great patches in the work, right at the end as Nelson’s Brits stand triumphant and the strains of “God Save the King” wind through some startling harmonic and contrapuntal challenges. Unfortunately, at the Bowl this came during the climax of those astonishing fireworks, so that the music incurred some competition. I’ll take that over helicopters, however, anytime.