Last night Herbert Blomstedt led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist in Piano Concerto No. 1 followed by Symphony No. 7.
Beethoven’s first piano concerto is a fascinatingly odd work. In three movements, it seems short yet isn’t. Musically it is Beethoven before “Beethoven.” Even as it isn’t. It opens, Allegro con brio, with a page straight out of Haydn, before diverting its flow into newer channels. By turns gentle then martial, this 1795 (probably) work shows the composer absorbing influences, digesting the wisdom of his predecessors, and searching for his own direction. There is a recurring flirtation with a fugue, yet it never quite coheres into canonic counterpoint. Ohlsson brought out these voices clearly and caressed them lovingly. There is also a recurring fascination with dissonance here, and our soloist voiced this playfulness and this novelty. The longest of the extant cadenzas adds to the imbalance of the composition as a whole, and this struggle to mix familiar and new into something original. The second movement, Largo, rapidly turns from the frolic of a child’s song to a lullaby with captivating tenderness an a propulsive, passionate sadness. Sudden twists and turns are a hallmark here, and the quick pace between movements reinforced this. The concluding Rondo: Allegro is frisky, scampering, filled with delight, light-hearted, and ponderous—all at once yet all connected. Played, as here, with intelligence and burnished skill the fascination of this music becomes the focus and kernels pregnant with possibility catch the ear, expanding as the concerto advances and resonating in listeners’ memories with later works of Beethoven (including the symphony on the second half of this program), blossoms unfurling in happily unexpected ways.
The second half offered Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Minor, op. 92. This liminal work intrigues us for potentialities and explorations even though it as become quite familiar. Opening Poco sostenuto there is a classical or pastoral calm, which transitions into the Vivace that is the bulk of the first movement. The transition is treacherous metrical modulation territory which recordings by professional ensembles don’t always master. Here? Nailed it, for a truly auspicious start. The spry Herbert Blomstedt led the BSO in an agile reading, with clear direction and clear gestures meet to the music. A fleet performance this, with all lines kept audible and beautifully balanced. The second movement, Allegretto, built in intensity and picked up tempo, giving the music an added dimension of power agitatingly just on the edge of rushing but not, noticeably forward-moving as anxiety joined angst. Instead of a lugubrious dirge, this was a heightened cry of anguish. The Presto took a cue from the opening pastoral, recalling the frolic of the first movement of the piano concerto with which the concert began. Attacca into the Allegro con brio, the symphony hurtled to its conclusion. A grapple with form and direction, a grasp for an altered musical voice, and still a coherent, cohesive composition running the gamut from grief-laden cries to flitting ditties to peaceful contentedness to the exhilaration of a whirling dance spinning ever more out of control.
Seeing “All-Beethoven Program,” I feared uninspired familiarity, yet possibilities always exist, and those of us who warm seats in Symphony Hall often enough feel that frisson just before the concert begins, wondering whether a great miracle will take place. Last night electrified: lightning struck, a miracle occurred, magic happened. The musicians transcended the quotidian and accessed the power and passion which dispensed a heady drug for all present.
Blomstedt brought the magic. He needed no wand. The score was superfluous, its pages never turned. His conducting gestures were clear and evocative. Sometimes his arms took on the postures of traditional Indonesian dance, while at other times his hands were subtly coy. As the music encompassed the world, Blomstedt embodied it. By the end of the concert, the musicians were as thrilled as the audience and Lowe refused the prompt to rise, insisting Blomstedt take a bow on his own.
Was it a perfect performance? Of course not. There is no such thing and our electronic recordings spoil us into an empty quest for sterile perfection devoid of the phenomenology of performance. The BSO Steinway had a markedly brittle upper register, despite Ohlsson’s varied touch. The ritardando into the concluding coda of the concerto was wobbly. In the symphony, I heard a couple slightly-too-early entrances from the first violins. There was an added something (reverb? echo?) when the brass and timpani played, seemingly due more to where I sat. (Sound bouncing off baffles perhaps?) Did any of this matter? Not a bit and enumerating imperfections is precisely not the point. Except perhaps the frustrating death-rattles of our tubercular patrons, but even that can be transcended—and was. The fine players lost themselves in the music, reveling in Beethoven’s power, emotion, ecstasy, and agony. What could be better?