Celebrating the conductor’s 80th birthday year and the Boston Philharmonic’s 40th, Benjamin Zander, Robert Levin and the band convened last weekend to perform three famous Beethoven works written within a roughly seven-year span (1804 – 1811): the Coriolan Overture, the Fifth Symphony, and the Piano Concerto No. 5, known shortly after its premier, strangely and forevermore, as the Emperor. It was a period of “phenomenal intensity,” as Michael Steinberg opined in copious selections from his ear-opening essays.
Zander met said intensity with bracing, serious, get-right-to-it energy. Beethoven’s Overture, full of thriceness both in direct threes and more complex formations, and in the composer’s “clenched-fist” key of C minor from its quick, explosive opening, dramatically portrays characters from Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 tragedy Coriolan, including the forceful, willful (but not willful enough) hero. “The piece is not supposed to be enjoyable,” pointed out Zander in private communication. His take Saturday evening may have been rather wanting in savor and clarity, but featured a practiced power that at the same time sounded wonderfully rough and ready.
The fist behind the Fifth Symphony, also in C Minor, took charge, grabbing the music and sometimes leaving bitten, burred edges. From the getgo: the thing with the famous (one) and-two-and-ONE opening is that you want it to be hurtled forward to the ONE. Thank goodness few do it anymore in the plodding, completely incorrect one-two-three-FOUR of the past, and Zander was a loud part of that sea change, which started in the early 1970s. You must as well get the holds of that last note right, and more important the brevity between the two groups (which are bundled, as Zander emphasizes). Throughout, in other words, you want the opening to echo, and be echoed in, every other later instance, meaning you want it like them and them like it, rather than something differently declamatory to start. Just as the later ones are punched, so must be the first pair.
It’s odd how uncommonly such a realization occurs. Zander really does get it, without question, the hurtling, the pressing, the propulsion. At Jordan Hall he almost did the unheard (critically unheard) opening downbeat as big as here (3:32).
Following, lines flowed clearly, even at the directed gait. Subtle rhythm downshifts could be heard, small speedups and slowdowns almost like a bad organist, but really more often observance. In email Zander pondered the composer’s map: “Third movement tempo … 96 makes perfect sense, though it is far from the traditional …. Is it really possible that Beethoven could hear the difference between 92 (second movement) and 96 (third movement)? It should ideally be felt in 12/8, with the first bar as an upbeat to a 4-bar phrase. … A wonderful thing happens in the transition to the Finale. The Scherzo [was] at 96 and the Finale is 84. So slower. … When the Trio of the third movement returns in the Finale, it has to be faster than the main tempo — i.e. 92 instead of 84.” Everyone (horns! winds! above all the basses!) got more than one workout over the remaining three movements, including the last with its 41 measures of tonic-dominant including 29 C-major chords. If not always perfect technically, it rocked, it rolled, it unrolled, the ensemble ablaze. Each movement struck with the new force of this work as here structured and paced.
Yet in general Zander’s stick is not particularly lovely to watch. As noted, interest in musicality of phrasing, shapeliness of line and section, dynamic range, beauty of tone, purity and precision of play were all on the low side. Elegance? Nah. It was unlike Zander’s multi-shaded and emotion-saturated youth conducting in Mahler and others.
It doesn’t matter. For propulsion like this, none of that is paramount: letting first-decade-1800s Beethoven be Beethoven rules. (Steinberg: “In 1808 the shock and the expressive effect must have been tremendous.”) More than once during the concert I wished I had brought my children and grandchildren. Get the CD of Zander’s Fifth, study his sermons, relearn this piece as fully as you can stand — as you already know, but as will be the more impressed upon you, this is Beethoven in peak “grab you by the lapels” mode.
Now, it has to be added that if you grew up with Beethoven à la Leibowitz, newly forward-moving then although not so much now, or if you currently own Vanska, Zinman, Dudamel, much less Gardiner and/or Norrington, or even — almost — Rattle, Kleiber, or Mackerras, Zander’s claims of revolutionary tempo revelations may seem a bit overdramatized.
For Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, the great local pianist, teacher, musicologist, classical-style channeler and Harvard retiree Robert Levin unspooled a medium-scaled, plainspoken, working-musician read. I see that this sounds like damning with faint praise, but the concerto was refreshing to hear as working music in performance, interpretatively straightforward, almost too sonically integrated, not the last word in hygiene either but nowhere excessively grand or Romantic. Levin did similarly sensitive yeoman work here years ago, although Saturday’s resounded on one of Jordan Hall’s splendid Steinways. The performance often enough felt like a gesture against the work’s invincibly wrongheaded name, for which the composer would feel “profound if posthumous disgust,” Donald Tovey explained. I did not bring my score, but I swear I saw Levin happily comping along several times, augmenting the aura of an exciting normal working-musician performance unfolding live. Maybe it is written that way and everyone does it and I just never noticed it before, smitten by the occasion’s usual grand eventfulness. Not here: actual, superior in-the-flesh musicmaking this was, like a Hauskonzert writ Jordan-large.
Even when un-nuanced and unvirtuosic, the music proceeded with almost no flagging, marching passages stepping crisply and the crucial large-gesture cadences unfurling, the subtle small ones also. Those wondrous inter-movement step and half-step drops got filled with drama, and the big hinge from Adagio to Rondo turned boldly in slow stride yet was not made too much of. The final dance galumphed not, with Beethoven’s many ascents up to splintered peaks, followed by tumbling descents, all perfect. What I appreciated most about Levin’s playing in the B-major Adagio (the key “interestingly fresh but reassuringly tied to where we have been”) were his supple and knowing slow rhythms, during which he often fondly cut across the orchestral current. In the hearty last movement, on the other hand, his syncopations grew marked.
Altogether a wonderful conveyance. Occasional lags aside, no-nonsense Zander had the band keep up comfortably, with zip and coherence. Again and again the evening showed the signs of effectively drilled rehearsal, those hours where the labor takes place. Zander’s technique otherwise would not necessarily have looked to produce such results. But with Beethoven at his own insisted tempos, the results satisfyingly spoke for the composer and to us.
David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.