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November 5, 2010

Baltimore Symphony performs music by Beethoven (sort of) and both Mahlers

Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony tended to some unfinished business Thursday night -- the never-completed Tenth Symphonies by Beethoven and Mahler.

For good measure, there was also some new business, in the form of rarely heard songs by Mahler's wife and, just as rare, a Beethoven overture touched up by Mahler.

It added up to one of the BSO's most interesting programs of the season, yet it was performed only once at Meyerhoff Hall. Odd. All that effort for so little return. (Music by both Mahlers will turn up in this weekend's Off the Cuff program that includes a reenactment of Mahler's therapy session with Freud.)

Although I loved the novelty of Thursday's concert, I kept thinking of a more rewarding lineup. Instead of just the first movement of Mahler's Tenth, the movement he essentially finished, I wish we could have heard a version of the whole symphony as completed by Deryck Cooke (or one of the other musicologists who have taken the challenge), based on Mahler's substantial sketches.

Having a full Mahler Tenth as the main item on the bill would still have allowed room for Barry Cooper's conjectural attempt at fashioning the first movement of what might have been Beethoven's Tenth. Or, better yet, the companion piece could have been Luciano Berio's "Rendering," a fascinating work from 1989 that takes as its starting point sketches Schubert left behind for a Tenth Symphony. Ah, well, maybe next time.

Alsop got things started Thursday with

Mahler's version of Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3 -- which is to say, basically Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3. The differences between Mahler's arrangement and the original don't call attention to themselves as much as his retouching of the orchestration in some Beethoven symphonies.

Mahler sure knew something about intensifying drama, though, and it was possible to hear in the BSO's performance a bolder level of contrasts than usual, as Alsop effectively molded and propelled the score.

Mahler's influence was also felt in the repositioning of the players onstage. It was great to see and hear the orchestra in the seating plan that he used (and several conductors still choose today) -- first and second violins sitting opposite each other (the original stereophonic effect); cellos inside, next to the firsts; violas inside, next to the seconds; basses on the left.   

Alma Mahler may well have developed into a major composer had she not accepted her husband's ban on such activity as a condition of their marriage (only after his time with Freud did Mahler realize the error of that requirement). Still, Alma's songs reveal a fine, if not thoroughly distinctive, sense of melody, harmony and atmosphere.

In the seven lieder included on the BSO program, the influence of Richard Strauss was evident throughout. This was especially true in those pieces, such as "Die Stille Stadt" and "Laue Sommernacht," with long instrumental codas. The Straussian connection sounded all the richer thanks to the orchestrations of the songs, deftly done by David and Colin Matthews.

Susanne Mentzer's warm, evenly produced mezzo tones filled out the melodic lines elegantly, achieving particularly beautiful results in "Waldseligkeit" and the disarmingly conversational "Bei dir ist es traut," with its sense of internalized rapture at the close.

Alsop provided attentive partnering from the podium and coaxed some lovely playing from her colleagues; the orchestra's final diminished chord in "Waldseligkeit" was, in itself, a gorgeous highlight of the evening.

No need to spend too much time with Cooper's attempt at filling in the blanks of Beethoven's Tenth. The music sounds like imitation Beethoven at best, imitation Schubert at worst. It has curiosity value, of course, and Alsop sure gave it a good shot.

The BSO's discipline slipped here and there in that would-be-Beethoven, but things came together quite effectively in the Adagio from Mahler's Tenth. Alsop showed great sensitivity to the searing lyrical theme that emerges from the opening mist, and she allowed the music to unfold with considerable eloquence.

But her approach to the pileup of dissonance near the end was disappointing. She didn't give quite enough time to, or summon enough orchestral power for, this extraordinary moment, when it seems as if Mahler peers into the future of the 20th century, shudders and retreats.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:40 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: BSO, Classical, Clef Notes


This has been nagging at me for a few days now, but why is imitation Schubert inferior to imitation Beethoven? Are you alluding to the fact that Schubert's symphonies, with the exception of his Ninth, are generally inferior to Beethoven's?

Another question: the main theme of Beethoven's Tenth is a pretty melody that calls to mind another classical music melody, which I cannot place. Can you?

You mustn't take everything I say so seriously. It was just a way of expressing a lack of conviction in Cooper's reconstruction. I adore Schubert, I worship Beethoven. But I wonder if the latter were really thinking of something along the lines of the first movement of Schubert's 8th (lyrical opening, sudden storm). The themes Cooper has rescued from B's sketches don't carry enough weight in my book. I hear vague resonances of various things in that chorale-like theme, by the way, especially Mozart (why would Beethoven be looking backwarad after the Ninth?), but no specific similarity comes to mind. TS

I suspect what catches Mr. Cohen’s attention in regards to the realized Beethoven symphony is that, aside from it being in a different key, the melody that is stated after the brief introduction utilizes the same three intervals (and chords) that begin the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (Pathétique) and that it shares a melodic and rhythmic contour similar to the beginning of the Pathétique’s second movement (known to many as the theme to Adventures in Good Music, the classical music appreciation radio program that was hosted by Karl Haas). I might add, the similarity between this realization of the symphony and the Pathétique is acknowledged by Barry Cooper in his forward to the score.

Raymond Kreuger
Orchestra Librarian
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Thank you, Mr. Kreuger. I just listened to a few seconds of the 10th from a sample on, and it was enough to confirm that it had reminded me of the slow movement of the Pathetique. Isn't the Internet wonderful -- both for getting questions answered and for listening to music?

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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