Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
The National Symphony Orchestra Sunday night concluded its month-long summer festival called "Basically Beethoven" (what else do you do when New York is putting on "Mostly Mozart" at the same time?) with a work that is basic Beethoven to the core.
It was, you cannot be surprised to read, the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, premiered in 1824. By then a quite famous man and also quite deaf, Beethoven the symphonist had set out to write the definitive Beethoven symphony. As usual, Beethoven overreached his goal but not his grasp. And he produced a work, bolstered in the last movement by chorus and four soloists, of such dimensions that it would influence the scale and character of much that came after it, culminating in the huge symphonic dramas of Mahler.
In the process, Beethoven gave us a work of such taxing complexity that doing equal justice to both the letter of its notes and the spirit of its message is indeed problematic. At the points where the musical push comes to the musical shove, the conducter must either compromise or favor one aspect over the other.
The performance, under Hiroyuki Iwaki of the Japan Broadcasting Corp. orchestra, was basically good Beethoven. Given the limited rehearsal time at his disposal, Iwaki could hardly afford any other course but the compromise. To have stretched some of the hushed interludes in the slow movement, for instance, to the near-stasis at which they can seem the most metaphysical, would have risked disaster under the circumstances. As it was, the moderately fast coda of the last movement was a bit of a maze as the brass and the drums got out of synch.
But in the process of sticking to fairly steady tempos and letting many of the work's lyric niceties pass without special attention, Iwaki was not inattentive to the message to Beethoven's music. The opening of the cataclysmic first movement was broadly rhetorical. The repeated statements of the tenor version of the last movement's main theme were majestic.
Of course, there inevitable problems of balance that come from programs prepared this way (sometimes it sounded like a concerto for tympani and orchestra). And one could not make a judgement about how far, under better conditions, Iwaki might go toward meeting Beethoven's challenge. One judgment that was right, though, was the decision to play the work alone and without intermission. That hour and 15 minutes is more music than in most programs twice as long.