The American Symphony Orchestra is entering the home stretch in its two-year project to present all of the Beethoven Symphonies as part of its Classics Declassified series presented at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Sunday they did the 7th Symphony, which unfortunately I had to miss due to a conflicting engagement, but the friend to whom I gave my ticket reported having a wonderful time. The format of these programs is that ASO Musical Director Leon Botstein gives a one-hour talk, with examples played by the orchestra, then the work that is the subject of the program is played in full after a brief intermission, and then there is usually some time for Q&A between members of the audience and Botstein.
Last night, they took an interesting excursion mid-project to present Beethoven's composition commonly known as "Wellington's Victory," which the composer himself referred to as a symphony, as Botstein quoted in order to justify including it in this project. The piece presents a musical dramatization of the Battle of Vitoria, in which the Duke of Wellington's English forces defeated the French for control of the Spanish peninsula, presaging Wellington's later defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome and at the time official mechanic to the Habsburg court, recruited Beethoven to write this piece as part of a grand concert celebration. Ultimately, after composition was underway, there was another decisive battle in which Napoleon's army was defeated by Austrian forces, and the concert ended up being a fundraiser for veterans of that battle.
The piece is rather curious, opening with fanfares played by drum and trumpet ensembles representing the two armies, then orchestral statements of their respective battle anthems, then a "battle symphony" during which bass drums imitate cannons and the ratchet simulates gunfire. Finally, there is a one-movement "victory symphony" to end the piece in a blaze of glory. Frankly, this is early 19th century schlock, rather inferior to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, the only other piece in this genre that comes close to repertory status. Beethoven write it for the money, I think, although Botstein also credits the possibility that he wrote it as a fervent patriotic Viennese citizen.
The first stereo LP of the piece was issued by Mercury in a spectacular edition splicing in cannon shots and musket volleys taped at West Point over a performance by Antal Dorati and the London Symphony Orchestra. The entire thing was obviously fake – no such concert performance could ever take place, and the blending of different ambiences created a very artificial effect – although Dorati's performance was quite spritely. A recent CD by Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra restricts itself to the original percussion and presents a fine musical statement, although the piece has no real depth to it.
I thought last night's performance sounded rather underrehearsed. Entries were ragged at times, balances were far off — the percussion quite drowned out the orchestra much of the time in the "battle symphony" segment, but maybe it's impossible to balance these things in a concert rendition – and the orchestra seemed more frenetic than polished in the victory symphony. Perhaps they did not devote much rehearsal time, since in my experience this orchestra is capable of much better playing than I heard on this occasion. Perhaps they put most of their rehearsal efforts into the 7th Symphony, a very challenging piece to play well, so this was more like sight-reading. Also, I thought Botstein's lecture was not as well-focused as his norm, although it was interesting to hear excerpts from other "battle" music that provided precedents for Beethoven's piece.
Next up in the series: Symphony No. 8 on April 10 and Symphony No. 9 on April 12. And they've announced the series for next year: Mahler 1st Symphony on Oct 30, Stravinsky Rite of Spring on Feb. 26, and Bartok Concerto for Orchestra on April 29. Definitely worth subscribing!