July 9-11, 2010
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Beethoven, King Stephen Overture
Piano Concerto No. 3
Symphony No. 5
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conducting
Gerhard Oppitz, piano
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos is one of the odd conductors whose name I had kept hearing, but could never associate with an orchestra, style, or repertoire. I had never seen him live before Saturday, and can't say I've ever heard one of his recordings. I'm pretty sure I used to get him confused with Miguel Hartha-Bedoya, before I realized RFdB is a few decades his senior.
It was my loss, because Frühbeck led one of the most thrilling accounts of Beethoven's Fifth I have ever heard. Since starting this blog I have reviewed a wealth of Beethoven orchestral performances, most recently portions of the Chicago Symphony cycle and the New York Phil's Missa Solemnis. de Burgos' command of the Fifth, though, swept aside all of those concerts: this was the towering Beethoven, the Beethoven of the wild hair and scowl, the one who (apocryphal or not) heard the knock of fate at his door.
Whereas Haitink, leading the CSO, made an impressive Fifth through his architectural conception of the work, Frühbeck transcended this idea: he created an interpretation of the Fifth as a completely unified narrative, achieving grand drama without sacrificing an iota of structural integrity. In his fierce conducting, Frühbeck merged the seemingly opposed aesthetics of directors like Haitink who value pacing and musicians like Tilson-Thomas who strive for moment-to-moment emotional impact.
From his forceful thrust in Beethoven's stabbing opening gesture, Frühbeck stirred up a musical frenzy, with volleys of sound ricocheting through Koussevitsky Shed. His conducting was less about keeping clear or steady time than galvanizing the orchestra to play like their lives were at stake. In the massive fugue, for example, most conductors typically draw out the intertwining counterpoint. But for Frühbeck it was all about capital-P Power: each entrance comprised part of a tremendous musical battle, an assault of sound. The key word for the performance was momentum---Frühbeck used the colossal end of the first movement as a kind of springboard to the Andante con moto, following through the final chord to maintain propulsion of tempo and narrative.
Frühbeck sustained this musical presence through a regal Andante, producing a blaze of sound in the final recap of the majestic theme. Without waiting for pause between movements (Tilson-Thomas's lethal mistake in the Mahler), he launched into the mysterious scherzo. The BSO horns, clearly used to Levine's stentorian command, blared out at full blast, and the basses tackled their devilish scales with startling strength. In a final coup before the glorious finale,Frühbeck managed to not only control an impressively soft transition, but actually get even softer to emphasize the gigantic crescendo.
The final movement was sheer force, with loud but balanced brass and soaring strings. Where most interpreters render the march-like theme crisp and taut, Frühbeck made it broad and especially long, an unusual move which felt right. Even in the triumphant, long-winded coda, interrupted by sporadic applause, Frühbeck kept giving more and more. When the entire audience burst into clapping as he held the last note, it somehow seemed appropriate: the natural ecstatic response to such concentrated drama.
And the rest of the concert was remarkably good too. The King Stephen, a completely unmemorable overture, benefited from the orchestra's attentive brass and lucid strings. Gerhard Oppitz's crisp, light keyboard playing matched nicely with Frühbeck's conducting in the Third Piano Concerto, a work not really in C minor. It opens with the simplest possible glean of a minor key, an arpeggiated triad, before embarking upon a surging major-key exposition. The BSO imbued the lengthy orchestral itnroduction with an engrossing mix of colors, brimming with nuance. Through the first movement Oppitz's playing retained a dignified and graceful touch without relinquishing the weighty presence which Beethoven demands. In the stormy cadenza, with its moments of Hammerklavier-esque ingenuity, Oppitz produced a virtuosic splendor of sound.
This splendor continued through the Largo, as Oppitz made Beethoven's exquisite aria sing with delicately tender chords accompanied by the BSO's silvery hush of strings. In the finale, Oppitz emphasized jagged accents and flicked off grace notes easily, embracing the Mozartean Sturm und Drang moments while retaining a clarity of rhythm and articulation. The concerto ends with a coda in C major, but the work lacks the affirming transformation we see later in the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies (or Mahler's Second, for that matter)---it is a playful turn to a bright key, in a piece that abounds with light pleasures.
Next up: Mozart and Heldenleben
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