Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, together with the magnificent chorus of the Vienna State Opera offered a Beethoven Ninth Symphony last night in the Kennedy Center that made a shattering impact.
Probably no single performance of this huge, storm-ridden music ever achieves all that a great conductor hopes for -- or, for that matter, all that Beethoven wrote. The music, which exploded harmonic ideas in Beethoven's time, ranges from the merest whispers of sound to raging shouts in tempos that seem to slow down to the point of nonmotion, and then drive forward in furious passages marked to be played as fast as possible and then faster.
Bernstein has lived with this music for decades, never ceasing to probe its mysteries, always looking for ultimate solutions to questions that have no definitive answers. Last night he presented a unified view of his work, exposing hints in the early pages of much that was to follow.When all the dissonance and tempest was over, he triumphed with Beethoven in reaching that endless plateau of joy.
The slow movement was a succession of haloed passages in which each detail was immaculately sculpted.
The great orchestra was in fine form despite minute slips. Throughout, they gave examples off their understanding of the conductor's intentions.
One of these must be cited, for it stood out in the midst of the long work as a moment of perfect awareness of the music's meaning. At measure 110, in the slow movement, the violins interrupt the long, sustained line of their aria to dance for half a measure in a joyous dotted rhythm that has immense significance. Often overlooked, this passage was sheer delight, as was the violin section's playing in that entire movement. w
Equal in beauty and strength was the grand chorus of the Opera. They gave Bernstein those elusive staccato half notes, they enunciated each word with full meaning, and their singing in the fiendish, long, high measures was a model for all.
Alas that the solo quartet was so far below the standard set by the chorus. Gwyneth Jones, Rosalind Elias, Jess Thomas and Kurt Moll made a strangely ill-assorted foursome. Among them, only Elias sang with absolute security throughout, but Beethoven gives the alto no chance for glory. Had the quartet been able to sing the notes as accurately in time and tone as the chorus did, things would have been on a higher plane. Nothing, however, could stem the torrent of conflict, drama and final triumph that Bernstein and his choral and orchestral musicians unleashed.