Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Beethoven’s Third and Fourth Symphonies…Levine and the BSO

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Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine, conductor
Friday, February 19, 8 p.m.

All-Beethoven Program
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 3, Eroica

In October 1803, Beethoven’s student Ferdinand Ries wrote a publisher about the new Third Symphony: “In his own opinion it is the greatest work he has yet written. Beethoven played it for me recently, and I believe that heaven and earth will tremble when it is performed. He is very much inclined to dedicate it to Bonaparte.” Ries was speaking metaphorically, and, metaphorically, he was right. In the world of music, the Third did shake heaven and earth. As the longest, most complex, most intense, most personal symphony ever written, it met the inevitable incomprehension in its first performances, but within two years some critics were calling it the greatest symphony ever written and a model for the future.

Its reputation has not appreciably declined since. But even Beethoven could hardly have imagined how the Third would change the sense of what a symphony could be and do, and to a degree what music itself could be and do. To begin with, it confirmed the reputation of the symphony as the king of musical genres. But the Third, composed from beginning to end as a work called Bonaparte, would not enter print under that name. It had been intended as a testament to the first man in history to raise himself from nothing to ultimate power, who proposed by conquest to spread the ideals of the French Revolution across Europe. But when Beethoven heard that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor of France, he understood immediately that this conqueror was no liberator but only one more tyrant. The Third would be published as Sinfonia eroica, Heroic Symphony, with the subtitle “in memory of a great man.” In memory, in other words, of a failed revolution.

James Levine’s four-symphony Beethoven week this February was surely planned as an echo of his complete Beethoven survey of the previous autumn, which had the potential to be a historic series by a conductor and orchestra in their mutual prime. (There were elaborate recording arrangements for the autumn series.) But Levine’s bad back crashed, and as he headed for the hospital others took over the Beethoven programs. The results, to put it nicely as possible, were not historic. Did this month’s four symphonies in a week, for which Levine had less time in rehearsal to put his stamp, compensate for the disappointments of last autumn? Let’s say, closer to yes than no.

The program at hand here was the Third and Fourth Symphonies. For both listeners and performers the first movement of the Eroica remains a challenge to make sense of. It is searching, restless, continually in the process of becoming. In light of its stated program, whether concerning Napoleon or an abstract hero, it seems to be an evocation of a battle or a campaign, in which the opening theme–call it The Hero–comes into its own. But the Hero theme is, in fact, something on the order of a waltz, and that’s how Levine introduced it, lightly and directly. What happened in Levine’s first movement, and in the others, was a steady intensification toward the climax. In the first movement that climax is the hair-raising chords near the end of the development, which give birth to a soaring new theme (it can, if we like, represent the hero coming into his own).

That was Levine’s pattern for the rest of the symphony, and it worked beautifully. The second movement began as a funeral march plain and simple, and accumulated intensity and tragic power as it went. The third-movement Scherzo was as effervescent and headlong as it needs to be, the horns both thrilling and elegant in their hunting music. It seems to me that Levine understands well what the finale is about: transforming a little dance bassline and tune into something heroic and triumphant, ending with a hymn not to God but to Humanity, then an eruption of unbounded joy. I wish Levine had summoned more jubilation for that ending; it needs a sense that something great and final has been achieved.

For Beethoven’s part, having revolutionized the symphony and to a degree music in one stroke, he struck out on new paths without looking back. The work that began Levine’s program, the Fourth Symphony, is one of the most genial and comic of the symphonies. Robert Schumann called it “a slender Greek maiden between two titans,” the titans being the Third and Fifth. It marks the point at which Beethoven, having made a radically complex work in the Third, took a turn in his symphonies toward a radical simplicity that would climax with the raging Fifth and the placid Sixth. Under Levine and the orchestra, the Fourth, with its mysterious nocturnal introduction that gives way to dancing high spirits, seemed to be neither more or less than what it is: nothing heaven-storming, unique and delightful, yet pointing toward the future just as much as the Eroica.

As noted in other pages here, Levine is conservative in his approach. But great music-making has nothing innately to do with conservative, radical, or au courant; any approach done well can be brilliant and fresh in its way. Levine is a prime example, a case in point his thrilling German Requiem last year. Among other virtues he is free of the early-music tempo virus, which infects conductors with the illusion that faster is always better. One can always argue for or against a given tempo, but I find Levine’s generally more satisfying and musical than anybody else’s these days. The first movement of his Eroica was well under Beethoven’s metronome mark, but in fact that mark is too fast to project much of the material. Levine’s Scherzo was breakneck, which was equally convincing. (Beethoven’s metronome markings are a subject to themselves. They were all done when he was deaf and that had its effect: Music goes faster in your head than in metal, wood, wire, and acoustic space.) In short, Levine is no postmodernist. His performances are about the music, not about himself. Whether that’s conservative or whatever, it gets my vote.

For the whole program the BSO’s ensemble was refined and impeccable, Levine all over the music with splendid attention. Remember that when he first arrived in Boston he could barely move his arms, though he transformed the orchestra anyway. The BSO has had its glorious periods, but in my book the arrival of Levine began its real golden age. (Admittedly, that impression may arise from the contrast to our long drab years with Ozawa.) Now even if Levine still conducts from his stool he is a picture of energy, arms flying, feet dancing on his footrest. Was this evening the kind of revelation of, say, some of his Beethoven and Schoenberg programs a couple of years ago? (I’m particularly thinking of his unforgettable Moses und Aron and Missa Solemnis.) I suppose not. But it still had the power of forces on both sides of the podium somewhere just below the summit of what they can do. Now and then the revelations will come, and, so to speak, heaven and earth will tremble again.

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