Orchestral Music Review

Slatkin & National Symphony On Tour: A Warhorse in Old-New Harness

February 19, 2004 - Winston-Salem, NC:

Wake Forest University's Wait Chapel was packed on February 19 for the second concert of the National Symphony Orchestra's ten-concert tour that began the night before in Charlotte and will end in Carnegie Hall. We missed the New York Philharmonic's rare Charlotte appearance last season, but a combination of cramped venues, the death of the old Friends of the College series, and the high cost of presenting major orchestras results in few concert by the big ensembles here, and it seems like ages since we had heard a fully-staffed string section in the Triangle, Triad or Down East.

Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony is the centerpiece of Music Director Leonard Slatkin's fascinating tour program. His February 15 New York Times feature article, "Inauthentic Beethoven, But Authentically So," is well worth digging up. Instead of the usual "warhorse," Slatkin has programmed the performing edition of conductor-composer Gustav Mahler with all of his "retouchings." There are sound musical reasons for what Mahler did. Beethoven's orchestra was smaller than late 19th-century symphonic ensembles with, typically, 90+ players, and the sound characteristics were very different. Eighteenth-century woodwinds were much less blended, and Beethoven reveled in their individuality. A much smaller string section led to greater prominence of woodwind and brass parts. Valve-less horns could play only certain notes, not the full chromatic compass. Mahler's approach was characteristic of many conductors before the use of chamber orchestras or "original instrument" ensembles in the later 20th century.

Before playing the Beethoven, Slatkin had the orchestra play several contrasted pairings of Beethoven's original and Mahler's "retouchings." Many were simple and seemingly commonsensical. To offset some thirty violins as well as a dozen cellos, a dozen violas and eight double basses, Mahler doubled or tripled the woodwinds and brass. Instead of three horns, near the end of the first movement and in the last, seven horns blazed forth. With fully skilled players, the Trio was something else! Mahler also filled in the "missing" notes that old horns could not play. In the first movement, to bring out the contrasted second violins, he had the violas double the part and scaled back the brass dynamics, which was both effective and sensible. By the way, Slatkin reseated the orchestra with the two violin sections facing each other at the front of the stage. After listening to the examples and the full performance, we deem that Mahler exceeded himself with several other changes. To bring out the flute line in the first movement, he had four flutes play it and reinforced them with non-18th-century E-flat clarinets! This stuck out like a sore thumb and was not convincing. Equally off-putting were changes of accents on the beat and exaggerated dynamics that distorted Beethoven's lines. We were astonished when the entire clarinet section raised their bells high to play. Well remembering the last movement of Mahler's own First Symphony, we kept an eagle eye upon the horn section for the rest of the concert but they did not literally rise on this occasion! While we would not like to hear such wholesale "retouchings" regularly, the results were fascinating, and the performance cast new light on a well-known work. We hope Slatkin will be able to record the Eroica and the Ninth (which he is taking to New York) in Mahler's editions.

A quicksilver performance of Berlioz's "Roman Carnival" Overture opened the program. Kathryn Meany Wilson phrased the celebrated English horn solo with consummate style. With a huge string section capable of a vast dynamic range, the brilliant brass never once covered them. Slatkin secured true "ppp" from all sections whenever required. What a piquant and delicious treat it was to hear a large orchestra tackle Ives' Three Places in New England! "St. Gaudens'" is a melancholy and tonally ambiguous evocation of the monument to Colonel Shaw's famous all black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. A typically wild Ivesian mix in "Putnam's Camp" recreates the effect of many bands marching about playing totally different pieces. Our favorite, "The Housatonic at Stockbridge" is an impressionistic collage of an early morning walk in the river mists with the distant sound of singing from the church across the river.

Only in the encore, the vigorous "Farandole" from Bizet's Second L'Arlésienne Suite, did the strings get covered by the three trombones and other brass going full blast.