ASO Classics Declassified: Beethoven 6th

Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra have launched the second season of their journey through the Beethoven Symphonies in their Classics Declassified Series at Symphony Space.  This afternoon they presented a spirited rendition of the Pastoral Symphony (No. 6, Op. 68), following a lengthy, illuminating talk by Maestro Botstein with illustrations played by the orchestra.

I think this series is very important for the members of the orchestra.  They do a commendable job in their regular concert series fulfilling Botstein's mission to present first American or New York performances of works by composers who have been at best names in history books, but it must be frustrating to play in an orchestra and never get to sink your teeth into one of the great masterworks of the central orchestral repertory.  This series, which focuses on core repertory works, gives them that opportunity, and they make the most of it.  The orchestra really played its heart out this afternoon, and was certainly challenged by Botstein, who likes brisk tempi in his Beethoven (as last year's installments of this series proved). 

The first movement seemed to me brisk and ship-shape – as if the urbanite arriving in the country expressed his joyous feelings by setting off on foot at a brisk canter.  The Scene by the Brook was also quite lively – much more so than usual in my experience – with careful attention paid to the various incidents and sterling contributions from the woodwind soloists.  A boisterous peasant revel passed well in the third movement – my only qualm being that solo flute and oboe tended to get drowned out in the tutti passages – the storm was adequately stormy (although here the lack of a bigger string section a la NY Phil was telling), and the finale was heaven itself, again on the brisk side but not unduly so.  In all, I found this a very satisfactory rendition, and more involving than many I have heard.  I have long thought the 6th the weakest of Beethoven's nine symphonies, as his strength is more for abstract musical thought than for pictorial representation (of which this symphony has its share), but I guess a really good performance will overcome the weaknesses, and this was one.

Botstein does need an editor for his talks, however, since he has a tendency to ramble a bit.  This one ran well over an hour, and could have said as much in a bit less time. The best part, as far as I was concerned, was toward the end when he traced the influence of this symphony on other composers with performances of excerpts from Schubert's 9th, Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique, and Mahler's 1st.  If there were but time, I would have added some Bruckner and Brahms, both of whom were influenced by this symphony, especially in their slow movements.  Perhaps some Dvorak as well.  Maybe the entire lecture could have been devoted to the influence of this symphony on others….  For another time.

This is a very valuable series.  Over the remainder of the season they will explore not only Symphonies 7, 8 and 9 but also Wellington's Victory, with its celebrated Battle Symphony.  I wonder if they will bring French and English flags and recordings of real cannons and muskets, familiar to we old-timers who learned the piece from Antal Dorati's Mercury recording (which came with those little cardboard flags to set up on your stereo speakers to help you identify the dueling armaments from each side)!

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