Saturday, June 5, 2010

beethovenfest part 1

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink, conductor

Beethoven, Overture to Fidelio
Symphony No. 8
Symphony No. 5

This year's last hurrah for the CSO consists of a Beethoven festival: all the symphonies, a smattering of overtures, and some chamber performances and lectures in the mix as well. Beethoven cycles, like Mahler cycles, are pretty standard right now--off the top of my head, I can think of two this year (BSO's failed Levine cycle and the Fischer/Lincoln Center cycle, part of which I attended) on the east coast alone. There is no want for Beethoven anywhere in the country, and certainly not in Chicago, where the CSO does a couple symphonies each year.

So what, exactly, is the big deal? One can argue that great performances of great music is a big deal unto itself. This is Haitink's final grand artistic statement with the orchestra before Muti takes over fully; although Chicago will continue to have a strong relationship with the eminent Dutchman, the orchestra will be in other hands. My problem is this, and one that I've raised a number of times on this blog, so I'll try not to harp on it: there are so many ways to make this festival more interesting. We really did not need a performance of the Fidelio overture last night: wouldn't it have been great if the orchestra had kicked off their Beethovenfest with a more recent piece which reflected upon, or took departure from, the grand legacy which Beethoven left behind? This festival could have been a great mix of Beethoven + ___, mixing Beethoven with either his lesser-performed contemporaries (Weber, Spohr) or recent composers who have dealt with Beethoven's ghost. Next time, swap out Fidelio for Kurtag's haunting Stele. It would have made a major difference.

Before delving into the concert itself, I should also note that this was the oldest audience I have seen at Symphony Center in my four years of attending concerts there. Whether this was because it was a Thursday subscription performance, or because the Beethoven fest was marketed towards older folks (fewer student tickets available?), I don't know. Hopefully the audience will get younger in the coming weeks, but it was a bit disappointing--I overheard a woman in the lobby near me saying "It's always nice to see young people at these kinds of things," which is never a good sign. That said, plenty of members of the older crowd do come to concerts to be engaged, and not always to take a musical bubble bath, as Alex Ross likes to call it; the woman next to me, for example, took issue with Haitink's tempos in the Eighth. This concrete knowledge of and deep love for the standard rep is not necessarily something you get with the younger audiences everyone's trying to attract (trust me, I know them).

I wish that Haitink had treated the thundering opening chords of the Fidelio overture, a classic example of Beethoven condensing operatic drama into instrumental form, with the full weight and might with which they resonate. Haitink led a not particularly forceful performance: the highlights of the overture came from the orchestra rather than a strong podium presence. Those opening chords were immediately followed by a silken strand of winds (with the merciful absence of Dale Clevenger), shimmering in the air like gold. Most notable was the excellent horn and clarinet playing of Daniel Gingrich and John Bruce Yeh. Unfortunately there were a number of rough patches in the strings, which through the entire first half lacked delicacy, with soft sections sounding overly muddy by CSO standards. I think Haitink's greatest skill is his incredible way of crafting and building dynamic changes; the crescendo about halfway through the overture rippled slowly to the fore, like a mountain coming into view through the fog. But overall the Fidelio was a perfunctory performance, without a strong sense of musical personality or vision.

That disappointment continued in a rather bland rendition of the Eighth Symphony. There's a cliche which often comes up in Beethoven discourse, that the even-numbered symphonies are his conservative "steps back" after the forward thinking of the Third, Fifth, and Seventh. That argument doesn't hold up to real scrutiny, especially given the revolutionary qualities of the Sixth, but I think it does have some bearing on the Eighth. For me, it's probably Beethoven's least interesting symphony, especially following the knockout Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh. In the Eighth, I value clarity of thought and musical rhetoric, fleet and brisk tempos, and a humorous, Haydnesque bounce and lilt to the style. Haitink's broad interpretation lacked all of those signifiers, and just seemed to fall flat. His tempos, although faster than traditional, did not sound as light-footed as those from his London Symphony cycle.

The first movement had a few notable moments--the rich opening and characteristic choppiness in the coda--but was marred by uneven string playing and Haitink's inattention to some of its best parts. He didn't do much with the weirdness of the development, with its bizarre viola/cello ostinato and murmuring winds, which points ahead to Schubert and Mahler. In the curt middle movements, the cutesy tick-tock Allegretto and blooming Minuet, Haitink's conducting missed the key rhythmic propulsion, the drive which sustains the best performances and recordings of the Eighth. Once again the winds saved the day, with fantastic bassoon, clarinet, and especially horn playing in the third movement's trio; and Vadim Karpinos's resonant timpani in the minuet almost made up for sloppy cello passagework.

By the finale, though, the orchestra seemed to find its footing. They reclaimed a beautiful softness in the opening, with the strings creating the sensitive whirlwind of precision necessary in the Eighth. Haitink, though, was still not entirely convincing in his interpretation. Where was the zest, the joy of life so omnipresent in all of Beethoven's music, and exuberantly expressed in this symphony? It eventually exploded with Karpinos' wild timpani at the end, where Haitink finally matched Beethoven in having some fun with the music.

Luckily, the Fifth fared much better. This is a work which benefits from Haitink's elder statesman presence. The orchestra plays it frequently enough to be able to lead a technically solid rendition, and Haitink used his architectural sense of interpretation to mold the four-movement progression into a slow burn. Each climax sounded carefully planned, like bricks laid towards an ornate cathedral. The infamous beginning was taut and quick, almost dance-like, worlds away the stop-start melodrama of Solti's (and his contemporaries') recordings. It had the sweep and pacing which the Eighth lacked, with piquant horn calls, a breathtaking oboe soliloquy, and a massive, powerful fugue.

It is easy to forget how bizarrely raucous Beethoven's symphonies must have sounded at the time of their premieres. The Fifth in particular, with its first performance in that massive four-plus-hour concert with hardly any rehearsal time, probably cleaned out the ears of an 1808 audience like how Shostakovich's Seventh or Corigliano's Circus Maximus might today. Haitink's second movement perfectly combined the stately and noisy in one sound world, with Beethoven's violence and nobility existing side-by-side. There were the stentorian tones of the brass, crystalline winds, instants of eerie calm, and a lively, brief double-time section in the coda.

Haitink led a delightfully mysterious scherzo, a series of entrancing questions and answers. All the horns went balls to the wall, announcing their presence like a cavalry, and the devilishly difficult low strings tutti was intense and precise while still retaining its inherent rustic quality. The forty-second build from the spookiness of the scherzo to the brazen heroism of the finale, easily the best transition ever (and stolen by Mussorgsky for the end of Pictures at an Exhibition), seems to be written for Haitink. His mastery of the gradual crescendo, keeping the music minutely soft until the last possible moment before revving the engine---going from absolutely nothing to everything---is why we pay him the big bucks. His rousing, stirring finale, with glowing brass (who ocasionally, especially on the low end, went overboard), capped off a fantastic Fifth.

I'll be making it to all of the rest of the cycle except for the Ninth, and will probably reflect upon the whole thing after my individual reviews. Next up is the Second and Third. I heard the same program with Ivan Fischer and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in March; let's see if the CSO is up to the challenge of topping that amazing performance.

1 comment:

  1. Good review. I agree that some lesser-performed compositions would have been nice. That said, I doubt that the rehearsal conditions of a three week festival with limited repetitions of programs permits this. I'm looking forward to your comments on the rest of the cycle.