Monday, June 14, 2010

beethovenfest part 2

Friday, June 11 2010
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink, conductor

Beethoven, Leonore Overture No. 2
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 6

Whatever qualms I shared about last week's Beethoven kick-off were made irrelevant by Friday evening's performance. We again had two symphonies and a Leonore overture, but this time each work was a winner in its own way. One of my issues with Haitink's Eighth (and perhaps with his Fifth as well) was a lack of interpretive insight--his direction did not seem to bring anything new in particular to the music. Some critics tend to rail against conductors who have "interpretive agendas," who seemingly draw on elements not "inherent" in the music: these are usually the people who criticize HIPsters (as in historically informed performance). But I demand interpretive agendas from my conductors, and I want to hear something unique in every evening I spend at Symphony Center. For an orchestra to play a Beethoven symphony no different from any number of recordings leaves me cold. But Haitink and the CSO achieved something much greater than that on Friday.

Whereas much of last week's Leonore overture felt uncommitted, even flabby, Haitink imbued the second overture with a deep sense of thought and character. The opening chords had a sensual taper to them, with Beethoven's flecks of light and dark fluttering through the winds and strings. A halcyon chorale of winds created a spiritual but earthy atmosphere, and each of Haitink's pauses between the loud, rumbling pulses felt deliberate. After a brilliantly paced transiton, Haitink brought sheer ebuillence of the fast section, with deft and precise string playing and magisterial horns. The rest of the overture was operatic at its core, alternating between the shadow play of its quieter moments and the controlled chaos of its fortes. And the entrance of the trumpet sounded like something out of a dream; Chris Martin's resonant, full-bodied, and absolutely lyric tone captured Fidelio's sense of affirmation more succinctly than any performance of the full opera. Haitink's glorious blaze of a finish was Beethoven at its core, the joyful and boisterous intertwined into his ever-present message of human achievement and enlightenment.

Beethoven's Fourth Symphony is an odd little gem, a stop-gap between the mighty Third and Fifth, but one which resonates with its own special powers. It opens with a weird, humming chord: winds buzz with otherworldliness. The music moves away from this strange color but keeps returning, steady in its ambiguity. But finally, it explodes into a full-blooded sound, the playful, ripping Beethoven we're used to. It practically brims over with effervescence, and Haitink did an admirable job of balancing the jubilation with crisp virtuosity. Even a few rough patches of flute and oboe playing (the principal players hung back until the second half) didn't ruin the mood.

The Fourth's Adagio is one of those quintessentially Beethoven movements which make him impossible to place between the Classical and Romantic chapters in everybody's textbooks. A theme unfurls with jaunting, rhythmic grace, echoing the instrumental Mozart; but before long, it launches into something purely of the 19th century, with a rising and falling figure pulsing through an arc of forceful sound, teeming with unbridled power. Beethoven seamlessly transitions between these two musical worlds, juxtaposing anguish with refinement: Haitink took it all in stride, bringing vivid clarity to the classical sections and heightened tension to the romantic ones.

In the bustling scherzo, one moment most clearly stood out. I heard a delightful ping of horns but was surprised to find no brass actually playing: the two bassoonists somehow perfectly mimicked the sound of horns, a timbral coup for both Beethoven and the orchestra. The finale was a rollicking wonder. Sudden bouts of musical excess almost spilled over, but Haitink maintained absolute control, reveling in its puckish nature. And most importantly, Haitink brought a command to the score which demonstrated interpretive sagacity and careful intellect, much moreso than last week's Eighth.

I think the Sixth is Beethoven's one symphony which defies all I've already said about conductors, interpretation, and musical vision in regards to the composer's music. In this work I treasure above all that the conductor make himself completely invisible; I don't want to see a top-down, insightful approach, but instead I want the illusion that the music is self-creating, that all of the gorgeous pastoral nuance somehow plays itself. Of course this is illusion: a great performance of the Sixth requires just as much podium care and craft as the Fifth or Ninth. But because of the inherent naivete of the music, which transcends its pastoral imagery, the authority of the conductor seems somehow inappropriate.

And Haitink handled this completely correctly, attuning himself to the music and guiding it so its flow seemed almost supernaturally organic. The first movement, our introduction to the tranquility of the countryside, achieved a shimmering serenity. In that glowing moment towards the end, in which the strings reach an ecstatic height before pulling away slowly like the tides, Beethoven and Haitink came together as one. With principal players back on board (Dufour, in particular, was sorely missed in the Fourth), the dialogue between flute and clarinet in the coda was a feat, each note flawlessly placed. This incredible soundworld continued through the scene by the brook, which appeared effortless in Haitink's hands, bubbling with life. Again the woodwinds stole the show, with the trio of bird calls at the end, elegantly balanced and almost plaintive in its mystery.

A broad scherzo with a folksy oboe solo, in which tiny gestures coalesced into a leveled bawdiness, preceded the building tension of the storm. The basses roared, and the orchestra became a vehicle for destruction, a force of nature in Beethoven's neo-Baroque writing. After unleashing the orchestra, Haitink reined it back in: the clarinet and horn brought us back into the light in the purity of the finale. Woodwinds became a choir of pilgrims, and the silvery sheen of the strings evoked the sound of an organ. This is the pinnacle of nature as religion, the sublime Beethoven re-creating and romanticizing a series of benign images: the music is simply much, much better than any country, brook, or storm you will ever see. It was a magical Sixth.

A couple other notes:
Patrick Messina, the guest principal clarinetist visiting from the Orchestra National de France, practically stole the show. Each of his solos was understated, with an amazing blend and vocal timbre. Some orchestral musicians put a remarkable amount of care into their excerpts, inflecting each note with a different musical idea. But the best musicians eclipse this notion, making their instrument a completely natural cog within the orchestral machine, becoming the most beautiful part of the music without standing out from the pack, and raising the quality of the ensemble as a whole. Messina achieved this in every single note he played, and it was truly remarkable.

I'm usually okay with Phillip Huscher's program notes for the CSO, but one little sentence really bothered me. In describing the first movement of the Sixth, Huscher writes that "Surely no composer---including the so-called minimalists--has so clearly understood the impact of repeating a simple idea unaltered, or slowing the rate of harmonic change to a standstill." I don't think I need to say much, except that a side comment like that profoundly misunderstands both Beethoven and the so-called minimalists.

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