in: Reviews

November 1, 2009

A Fresh Take on Old Standards

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The symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven are about as standard as the repertoire gets in symphonic literature; they are performed more than frequently to audiences who know them intimately. They are like old friends we visit often; and, as with anyone we know well, the visit can either be obligatory and boring — the same old stories told the same old way — or they can be unusually exciting, especially if we see sides of our friend that we never before noticed, even after all these years.

On October 29th, Julian Kuerti led the BSO in performances of the third and fourth symphonies that demonstrated just how exciting — and even somewhat peculiar — such a visit can be.

The program opened with the Symphony No. 4, Op. 60. In many ways, this is the most underrated of all the Beethoven symphonies, often lost between the epically groundbreaking Third and the powerfully autobiographical Fifth. The Fourth, however, is a masterpiece in its own right, a symphony of joyously balkanized contrasts that must be connected to make musical sense while still retaining their individual characteristics. Kuerti managed this challenging feat brilliantly, crafting a stunning performance that gave the work the personality of a young royal on an adventurous outing. The opening Adagio, normally treated as mysterious and questioning, became stately yet anticipatory. This led into an Allegro vivace that was brimming with regal brightness; the strings were rich and fluid, the winds flowing and bobbing, the brass forceful and resonant, and all were held together with exciting articulation and dynamic contrasts. The whole movement had the feel of a princely 19th-century jet-ski, skipping across the water with agile weightiness. Kuerti continued his masterful melding of contradictions in the second movement (Adagio), capturing the youthful mood swings between pomp and lyricism with a grandeur that was somehow oddly intimate; and in the third movement (Allegro vivace), making the heavy syncopations dance, and the bantering winds and strings of the Trio delightfully conversational. The final Allegro ma non troppo was treated as a pulsating and rollicking romp, with winds sounding like an outdoor band to which the strings were leaping about with boy-kingish delight. Even the last little viola-and-second-violin lick — an adolescently exaggerated “Are we done yet?” sigh typical of Beethoven’s rubber-chicken humor — was playfully worked into the final strains of the narrative.

In the second half of the program, Kuerti again managed to make bigness sound light on its feet with his take on the Symphony No. 3, Op. 55 (“Eroica”); but this time the effect was a curious one. Like the Fourth, the Third is a work of contrasts that border on contradiction. In this case, though, the emotional gamut is wider, deeper, and more complex, and a fair amount of heaviness is required for it to work; here, our young noble is an older and moodier hero with a distinct dark side. From the downbeat of the Allegro con brio, however, Kuerti made it clear that he wanted it to be a happy heroism. Forgoing the heavy-handedness with which this first movement is often presented, he went with a lyrically propellant, almost gliding interpretation that gave the music an unexpected dance-like quality. While this unusual reading was somehow compelling for this movement, it was less successful in the next two. The Marcia funebre was simply not gloomy enough, sounding almost as if the antagonist was, on some level, secretly happy at the death of the person being mourned. It needed more emotional contrast to highlight the poignancy of the second section and the dark power of the fugue. Similarly, the scherzo of the third movement lacked a certain seething and bubbling in its beginning required to make the consequent blaring effectively startling. Fortunately, Kuerti’s light-hearted approach to the Finale provided a charming sense of cohesion across its rag-tag collection of craggy variations; and the brilliant aura of valiance that he gave the coda made for an exhilarating close. By the end of the evening spent with two long-time friends, one had the sense that the visit was both thrilling and fascinatingly refreshing.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

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