BSO caps Beethoven cycle with the rousing Ninth Symphony

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / November 6, 2009

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies has entered its home stretch, as last night the BSO unveiled the fourth and final program of the series, featuring the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies.

Any performance of the Ninth by a world-class orchestra and an excellent chorus in an acoustically superior hall is by definition an event, no matter who is at the podium. In this case, Lorin Maazel was conducting, filling in for James Levine, who is still recovering from back surgery.

Let us get this part out of the way. Maazel’s interpretations of both the Eighth and the Ninth, for this listener, were less than persuasive. His leadership was cool, crisp, tightly controlled, and full of micro and macro ideas about tempo and phrasing that did not always work, from the minuet of the Eighth in need of more lilt, to the heavy-handed manipulations in the outer movements of the Ninth. There are also, in the end, reservoirs of depth, emotion, mystery, and sheer undomesticated wildness in this music that Maazel seemed uninterested in exploring.

Some of them came through anyway. With its annual spot at the end of the Tanglewood season, the Ninth might be the single symphony the orchestra has played most often. It resides deep in its bones, and last night, one could easily set aside interpretive reservations and appreciate the riches offered, such as the tonal beauty of the strings in the long-spiraling themes of the adagio, the precision woodwind ensemble work in the final movement, and the meticulous thunder of Timothy Genis’s timpani.

The vocal soloists - Christine Brewer, Meredith Arwady, Matthew Polenzani, and Eike Wilm Schulte - made a powerful if unevenly matched quartet. And the Tanglewood Festival Chorus delivered a rousing and focused performance, with less visceral intensity than Michael Tilson Thomas requested from them at Tanglewood in August, but with all the control and dexterity Maazel required. At certain climaxes, they positively saturated the hall with sound. The Ninth received a warm ovation, and some of the loudest cheers were reserved for the chorus.

And for the orchestra, too. This much Beethoven in such a compressed time span can be physically taxing for the musicians. For their unfaltering commitment to a cycle without its scheduled captain and for so much accomplished playing, they deserve our thanks.


At: Symphony Hall, last night

(repeats today and tomorrow)

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