It occurred to me on the way home from Symphony last Tuesday that the rosy glow I felt did not result from the evening as a whole, but was generated by the Finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Then again, since the Glee Club and Choral Society's participation in this particular movement was my excuse for going, I was glad it turned out well.
It's hard for a piece preceding the Ninth not to sound like a curtain-raiser: Everybody comes to hear what follows, but has to sit through the opening number anyway. Since Leinsdorf decided to preface the Ninth with something, Siegfried Idyll was a good choice. Unfortunately for those, like myself, for whom it is Wagner's only approachable composition, Leinsdorf's treatment of it was disappointing.
In the first place, there were too many strings. Richard Wagner composed this charming piece for his wife and played it from the stairway on the morning of her birthday. He scored it for what even the program notes call a small orchestra: flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, trumpet, 2 horns, and strings. If you can imagine the entire string section of the BSO standing on Mrs. Wagner's steps, you will get some idea of how Tuesday's performance sounded. No one loves the depth and richness of a large subdued string section better than I do; but the winds sounded puny in all those strings, even when Leinsdorf held them back. This situation, plus Leinsdorf's apparent desire not to spoil the Beethoven by making the Wagner too exciting, yielded a performance that was competent, well-played, and dull: The work deserves better treatment.
Taken as a whole, the Beethoven went well. The fact that the opening fifth of the first movement was noticeably out of tune was soon forgotten; for the rest of the movement, which I remembered as a sleepy and amorphous prelude to the Scherzo, was exciting to listen to. The orchestra was on its toes, and Leinsdorf was in control as he should have been-though he tended to make too much of certain of the important cello passages.
The fact that he brought off the first movement so well made his hash of the second movement sound particularly bad. His tempo was excruciatingly deliberate, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately he sped up, slowed down, and sped up again; if the orchestra had followed his tempi exactly, the effect would have been even worse. The timpani solo, which a timpanist friend assures me couldn't have been too loud, was-and the movement as a whole was a gigantic bore.
The third movement was as lovely as the first, and the winds were back in form. Leinsdorf's annoying flair for the unnecessarily dramatic got the better of his judgement at the end of it, however, and he went into the fourth movement without a pause. The audience was visibly disconcerted (we jumped), and Leinsdorf compounded his error by having the chorus stand on cue when this opening motive returned, an effect comparable to having them arrive in a burst of lightning.
Aside from these silly indulgences, the Finale was superlative. The orchestra was of course too loud for the soloists, who projected nothing but interference patterns in the ensembles, and for the chorus, which it covered up ever so often; but Leinsdorf never quiets his players: he simply asks for more from the singers.
The Glee Club and Choral Society together with the New England Conservatory Chorus, made up the chorus. As could only have been expected from three of Boston's best choral groups, they performed well. The blend was good (they sang as sections, not as individuals), and the diction was adequate, though I doubt they could have given more. Since every singer dreams of performing in Beethoven's Ninth, it is not surprising that the chorus's contribution was gusty and exuberant.
It felt strange to be sitting in Symphony Hall, listening to Leinsdorf conduct the BSO, and hearing bad blend and faulty intonation even occasionally. The total effect of the Beethoven was exhilarating, but I can't help wondering, in retrospect, whether my standards are too high (after all, the players are only human), or whether it could indeed have been better. When the Aristocrat of Orchestras falls down on the job, what values are sacred?