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In isolation, listening to Beethoven with fresh ears

Like you, I was looking forward to The Florida Orchestra’s first-ever performance of Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 5 in the arrangement by the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler. That program – which also featured Strauss’ Dance of the Seven Veils and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – is now canceled because of the coronavirus.

As part of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth this season and next, TFO offers a traversal of the symphonies, concertos and a handful of overtures. I’ve been listening on vinyl and CD to what we can’t hear live, including the Fifth, which Music Director Michael Francis had conducted about a year ago. But this new performance would be different, as Mahler had put some fresh paint on Beethoven’s original canvas.

“It’s a case of doubling up,’’ Francis told me at the beginning of the season. “More musicians will be involved, that’s all.’’

I have at least a dozen versions of the Fifth, from Toscanini to Bernstein to von Karajan, including Mahler’s arrangement on a 1993 world premiere recording by the Warsaw Philharmonic under the baton of Peter Tiboris (Albany Records). It’s worth a listen if you can find it, and makes a good companion to the book I’m reading, The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination, by Matthew Guerrieri (Knopf, 2012). Guerrieri traces the music’s influence since its premiere, explores the symphony in the context of our own time and examines what people over more than two centuries have heard in those first four notes and how history has affected what we hear in them.

As for Mahler’s tinkering, I see the changes as minor, and often so subtle as to be indiscernible to anyone not looking for them. The bigger question is why mess with such a masterpiece? Beethoven knew what he was doing, right? Well, from the early 19th century to the dawn of the 20th, lots had changed: Instruments improved, orchestras grew and concert halls expanded to fit more people. Beethoven’s music, Mahler believed, needed a retrofit. So he added extra instruments and tweaked pitches for a bigger, more vibrant sound.

Listening to the Albany recording, especially the changes to the second movement, I wondered how anyone could get upset about what Mahler did. After all, nobody rioted in the streets when Mozart revised Handel’s Messiah by adding clarinets to the score – an instrument that didn’t exist in Handel’s day. Fast forward to 1900, when Mahler conducted his retouched version of the Symphony No. 9 in Vienna – a city that revered Beethoven as a favorite child. Many were outraged, accusing him of waging war against authenticity. “What was offered yesterday is a deplorable example of this aberration, this barbarism,’’ wrote the critic Richard Heuberger of the New Free Press.

In his own defense, Mahler explained that “this is in no way a case of re-instrumentation or alteration, let alone improvement of the work of Beethoven.’’ He said his views were less about arbitrary change than playing the music as Beethoven would have wanted had he lived 75 or 100 years later – with a modern orchestra at his disposal.

Alterations or not, the Fifth has remained resolute since its first performance on Dec. 22, 1808, in Vienna. The concert stretched four hours and included the composer’s Symphony No. 6; the concert aria Ah! Perfido; two sections from the Mass in C; the Piano Concerto No. 4; a piano improvisation by Beethoven; and the Choral Fantasy for Piano, Orchestra and Chorus. Talk about a long night.

The audience had heard nothing like the Fifth. The opening notes launch an arching design in which form takes precedence over melody. After the electrifying opening in the dark key of C minor ─ which left the Viennese flabbergasted ─ the second movement introduces a series of double variations, as solace after the storm. The third movement is the symphony’s pivot point: It echoes the opening four-note theme in hushed strings and muted timpani before unleashing a blast of horns, ushering in the finale without a break. Darkness gives way to light with a radiant explosion that turns C minor to C major ─ ending what is arguably the most consummate example of symphonic logic in music.

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