After the first three movements had been played straight through like a Haydn symphony, as well as the orchestra could manage it. . . . the wild shrieks of the trumpet (with which [the fourth] movement begins) resulted in the most extraordinary confusion of sound. . . . Pohlenza was in a bath of perspiration, the recitative did not come off, and I really began to think that Beethoven had written nonsense.
The Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig has improved since Wagner's disillusionment. If, at Carnegie Hall last month, the orchestra played the first three movements of the Ninth "like a Haydn symphony," it did so in the very best sense. There was no straining for sublimity, only the working out of a muscular logic. The recitative was smooth as Schlag, and the finale, which in some hands becomes a sloppy bacchanal or a haphazard string of variety acts, was splendidly paced. The musicians ran their course, exultant as heroes running to victory. If you check the text, this is exactly what the tenor tells them to do.
It was a very satisfying conclusion to the orchestra's Beethoven cycle under its music director, Kurt Masur. I had come to the cycle with great expectations, having fallen in love with the orchestra two years earlier in this same hall. It is not only the noises it makes that make the Gewandhaus lovable, it is also the echo of ancient noises the orchestra has known--the voices of Telemann, Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Wagner. I happen to be a sucker for this sort of thing.
When Carnegie Hall was a stand of virgin timber, Leipzig had a rich musical tradition. A church choir is recorded in 1017, and by the late middle ages there were Stadtpfeifer and Kunstgeiger, wind and string players, on the town payroll. In 1688 Kuhnau founded a collegium musicum or amateur chamber group; in 1704 Telemann stole some of his players and started a rival ensemble, which J.S. Bach, cantor of the Thomaskirche, took over in 1729. In 1743, a number of collegia that had been playing in coffeehouses joined forces under Bach's student Doles and hired a tavern, and in 1781 the construction of a new guild hall for the drapers gave Leipzig's big orchestra a home and a name. This fluid compound of amateur and professional musicians was soon mixing in every aspect of Leipzig's musical life, with members playing at Thomaskirche services, at the opera, at civic ceremonies and--a persistent addiction--in coffeehouses. (The orchestra has retained its versatility under Communist patronage. While 150 of its members are on tour, fifty stay behind to take care of business at home.)
Mozart conducted two of his symphonies in 1789, and to keep the players from dragging he beat time so hard that his shoe buckle burst--an incident which, in the words of Fritz Hennenberg's 1962 monograph, "throws a characteristic light on the truly genial mentality of the orchestra." In fact the players were not used to being beaten at. As a rule the concertmaster would lead, a conductor being called in only when there were choral forces to be managed. Christian Pohlenz's successor, Felix Mendelssohn, was the orchestra's (and arguably Europe's) first real conductor. If, at his first rehearsal in 1835, Mendelssohn found the orchestra "very good, thoroughly musical," he soon made it immeasurably better. When Berlioz came to conduct his "Symphonie Fantastique" and two overtures--works as arcane in 1842 as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony had been in 1830--he was pleasantly surprised to find two rehearsals sufficient for an "irreproachable" performance. Since then the orchestra's music directors have included Nikisch, Furtwangler and Walter (who was forced to resign by the Nazis). Brahms, Wagner, Grieg, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky all conducted at one time or another.
Given all this, one might like to believe that the orchestra's character is a matter of tradition, that it plays Beethoven now somewhat the way it played Beethoven in 1801 or 1830. If it did, Carnegie Hall would have emptied out presto--just ask wagner. And yet there may be some present significance to the fact that most of Beethoven's symphonies were played in Leipzig within a year of their Vienna premieres and that they were played straight through, without the deletions or vaudeville additions resorted to elsewhere. With no aristocrats in town to mimic, the burghers of Leipzig had to rely on their own instincts. Instinctively they took Beethoven seriously--not as a god, not as a fad, but as a brother who could speak for them--and it may be this attitude, rather than any particular approach to sforzandos or fermatas, that has been passed along behind the desks for the past couple of centuries. Indeed, a certain attitude toward music at large--born of a Lutheran mingling of church and Stadt and private enthusiasm--seems to have survived the various regimes from Doles to Masur, from Frederick II to Honecker. Which is not to say that Furtwangler's Ninth would have sounded remotely like Masur's. I know only Furtwangler's Bayreuth recording, but if a Leipzig version turns up that sounds like Masur's I'll eat it. A tricky thing, tradition.
Masur has been music director since 1970. He spends six or seven months a year with the orchestra, which is about twice the average for brand-name free-world conductors. His musicians have the attentiveness (to him and to one another) of serious students, which is no accident; most are alumni of the Hochschule fur Musik, the Leipzig conservatory established in 1843 by Mendelssohn, where Masur and several of the first-desk people teach. And the conductor, who won the German Democratic Republic's Brahms Look-alike Contest three years in a row, does seem more the fatherly professor than the artiste. To his gestures, which range from fingertip petit point to a broad beer-hall rock, the players respond instantly--audibly and visibly. (At the end of the storm in the Sixth, Masur leaned menacingly toward the cellos when their low C thunderings failed to recede, and the first-desk players not only hushed up but actually leaned backward. Masur is scheduled to conduct the New York Philharmonic in February, and I fear for his ribs.)
The winds in some American orchestras sound like organ pipes. The Gewandhaus winds are another story; I was sitting too low to be sure, but from the sound I could have sworn there were people breathing into them. Phrases were shaped, not just opened and shut. In the Sixth Symphony, the flutes made quivering nightingale sounds here, icy lightning (in league with the piccolo) there; and the duet of oboe and bassoon in the third movement took on just the right touch of rusticity. As for the strings, they are neither as glossy as in most American orchestras nor as honeyed as in Vienna or Berlin. They are civilized and trim, in the Saxon and Anglo-Saxon manner. These strings play tennis. If the orchestra has a fault, it is the tendency of the cellos to play too quietly and too legato, so that when playing in octaves with the basses they almost vanish--the bass line is felt but not heard.
Masur has a way of making rhythmic motives evident but not obnoxious, so that they really do motivate the music. without that skill, a conductor essaying Beethoven is rafting without a paddle. But sometimes Beethoven's rhythms are obnoxious, as in finales of the Seventh and Eighth and almost all of the Fifth; and the conductor who slips past the rowdier rapids is likely to disappoint the vulgar crowd, including me. Masur also forgoes heroics, and in this repertory that takes heroism. His restraint paid off everywhere but in the Fifth, which was painfully deflated--one could almost hear the hiss of warm air.
Since I missed the two concerts given in October, my first impression was of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. The Fifth was predictably wan but the Fourth should have been wonderful; it was merely fine, probably because the orchestra was still taking the measure of Carnegie after a month of town halls and maximum-security Holiday Inns. After that it was whack, whack, whack--the Sixth hit right on the nose, the Seventh and Eighth looped elegantly into short center, the Ninth knocked out of the park.
Perhaps a program, or at least a nickname, gives the Leipzig imagination the tiny nudge it needs to soar. The "Pastoral" began with a true allegro ma non troppo that gradually relaxed, indicating the "awakening of cheeful feelings on arriving in the country." (Masur is rattling along in a coach and inhaling the new air, whereas someone like Walter seems to have been mellowing out in Heiligenstadt for a week already.) And then the brook babbled, the peasants danced, the storm stormed, the air cleared and thanksgiving was offered in the most native and heartfelt way. The "Choral" Symphony was just as bright-eyed.
These joyful results seem to have been obtained by means dry as dust: a respect for dynamic markings and repeats, a pedant's analysis of form, a jurist's notion of tempo, and an absolute attention to the sounds each player was making. The outcome confirmed the words inscribed above the door of the original Gewanhaus, and beneath the organ pipes of the present one: Res severa verum gaudium, which may be rendered, "True pleasure is a serious matter," or perhaps, "A difficult activity is a true joy."