Even as a child, like so many others, I knew about Beethoven, first learning of his unbelievable affliction of growing deaf, then encountering the unavoidable “List-en-to-me!” of the Fifth Symphony, and, for my piano lessons, practicing the ever popular Für Elise. As a college student, I recall endless stacks in libraries of Beethoven biographies and other books on his life and music. Today, I am more and more aware of the countless performances of this giant’s music given around the globe, and of the vast catalogues of recordings and the growing number of online databases, YouTube, and the like, transmitting his music to my CD player and home computer at a click of the mouse.
Beginning their Beethoven Symphony Cycle at Symphony Hall on Thursday, October 22, the Boston Symphony Orchestra programmed the first, second and fifth symphonies with Rafael Frübeck de Burgos conducting. (He is the scheduled replacement for the ailing Music Director James Levine for the first of the four concerts.) So, in advance of attending the first of the series, I decided to relegate all such experience to the back of my mind, to pretend, as much as I could, to be hearing this music for the very first time.
To my ear, the BSO made the opening of Beethoven’s very first notes of his first symphony sound as if they were emanating from some distance, an echo of history, possibly. This was my take on a neutralized reading of the slow introduction. This passage, and quite a few others, I would have to say, registered in much the same way during the evening’s nod to Beethoven.
However, when those very Beethovenian passages allowing the woodwinds to come into their own turned up over and again, his music almost always lit up — very often way up. The wind-string dialogues common in Beethoven symphonies were among the best effects of the entire night, the winds seemingly the inspiration. There were many passages from the winds that were especially marked with a vibrancy that tested the written pages of this symphony’s pages. Those visual symbols the composer had worked and reworked centuries ago came to life in the hands of the winds.
The flat-footed string playing in the first movement turned to clipped, march-like playing in the second movement, Larghetto. But like the winds, the tympani cut into the thick sound of the strings with its own wonderful touches of forte and piano. In the third movement, Scherzo: Allegro, syncopations were only permitted to jump out occasionally. And the teasing and fun and spontaneity were out for all the scherzos.
Too much regulation of the rhythms and dynamics permitted too little contrast overall. Insufficient inflection in and among the four movements led to a more generalized perspective, a flat topography, as it were. Sameness too often prevailed (unfortunately not only here but throughout the concert as well).
That being said, in the fourth movement, composition, conductor and orchestra joined together in a phenomenal interplay that created a myriad of sensations (the opposite result was produced for the Second Symphony’s finale which went way too fast). Much of what the program notes pointed toward finally materialized in the Finale: Adagio—Allegro molto e vivace. Quoting from the Thomas May entry, “Beethoven was already working toward a synthesis of spontaneity and craft, innovation and tradition, fantasy and form.” While the Second Symphony had more of a storytelling and life-like aura, it, too, suffered from the same kind of toe-to-toe interpretation as in the First.
Quick pacing in the Fifth Symphony coupled with a larger orchestra forfeited details as well as convincing contrasts. Absolutely gorgeous unison cello playing in their variation of the second movement theme, spine-tingling trumpets and rich full-bodied horns in their noble fanfares were left without buildups or preparations. In other words, they were raced into and out of. Rafael Frubeck’s wonderfully unexpected pauses taken toward the end of this Andante probably will remain as unforgettable moments, although at the expense of an all-too-compacted rendering. The noisy, overpowering final movement left “craft…tradition…and form” in its wake. The audience loved every bit of it.
Perhaps I should have cleared more out of my memory? Less? Perhaps the answer will become more apparent when I return for the next installment of this four-program series. It runs through November 7.