Sunday, March 28, 2010

HIPer than thou

Lincoln Center Presents
Beethoven Then and Now: The Complete Symphonies
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Iván Fischer, conductor

Allan Kozinn had some issues with the marketing of this weekend’s Beethoven symphony cycle at Lincoln Center (split between the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Budapest Festival Orchestra). I didn’t really see why this was a problem; although Thursday evening’s performance of Beethoven’s Second and Third was the only one I could attend, I imagine it would be exciting and invigorating to see two separate orchestras, with two distinct (but recent) traditions, performing Beethoven symphonies under the direction of one master. And what a master: Iván Fischer brought more insights to the symphonies than I have heard in a long time, and his intriguing interpretations were bolstered by the orchestral style as well as the acoustics of the new Alice Tully.

The two key words for the evening were balance and contrast. Unlike the post-Wagnerian orchestra (I will not use the term “modern,” because if anything the period or HIP orchestra is actually the “modern” invention; see Richard Taruskin), the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has the perfect balance between winds and strings, at least for this repertoire. Lines that feature prominently in a solo woodwind instrument, typically obscured in a large orchestra, float out among and mix evenly with the string timbres. And Fischer revealed every single contrast present in Beethoven’s scores, placing deliberately each subito dynamic change so that the score came vividly to life.

The Second Symphony, probably my least favorite of Beethoven’s Nine, came across marvelously. Although this work has its charms, it never struck me as particularly dramatic. But Fischer carried a cohesive sense of tension and release through each movement. Woodwind intonation issues aside (these were quickly resolved for the rest of the performance), the orchestra handled the first movement deftly, with a graceful but punchy sound. Fischer’s tendency to phrase each small section occasionally made for a choppy effect, but the piece moved so briskly it didn’t really matter. The Larghetto was the only real weak point of the evening, but that’s partially Beethoven’s fault: it’s just not a very interesting slow movement. Fischer did his best, aided by the orchestra’s polished brightness. In the crisp Scherzo, Fischer highlighted every detail, making the Haydenesque forte “surprises” all the more striking. And the finale was almost tyrannically bucolic, a frenzy of pastoral delights. Towards the middle of the movement, I heard something I didn’t know was there—a delightful, peckish little bassoon solo, usually hidden behind the strings, came to the fore.

But throughout the Second Symphony, there was one question on everyone’s minds (okay, maybe just me, him, and him): How would this bouncy, lively, and not-particularly-sustained style translate to the Eroica? Fischer could create exciting contrasts and touching little moments, but the Eroica requires long, deliberate dramatic arcs. The Beethoven of the Second and Third are very different creatures, so how would Fischer work with this orchestra’s specific sound to create the hyper-Romantic sound world of this heroic symphony?

Like the Napoleonic hero of the symphony, Fischer prevailed. This was the best Eroica I have ever heard, channeling the spirit of Beethoven. Justin Davidson just wrote a great article about the Eroica’s power over contemporary society—does it still have the power to shock? If it doesn’t, Fischer certainly did his best. The opening chords were urgent cannon shots, launching the vigorous, rocking Eb melody. Fischer accented each halting gesture and incessant, clashing forte blows of the C# dissonances. Iif anything, the result was a modern sound: it felt entirely fresh, lively and unabashedly un-Romantic. He untangled the twisted counterpoint of the first movement’s brief fugue, rendering each line with clarity but exigency. The layout of the orchestra, with first and second violins placed opposite rather than next to each other, produced lovely antiphonal trade-offs towards the end of the recap. Rarely would I use to the word thrilling to describe a performance, but this was just that.

If I had to pick a single favorite movement in all the Nine, it would be the Eroica’s Marcia funebre--the ultimate example of orchestral pathos, a dark counterpart to the heroics of the opening allegro. My conductors of choice are those that bring out this tragedy, creating cascading waves of music, an oceanic sensation that points ahead to Wagner—Furtwängler, Bernstein, Walter. Fischer and the orchestra created narrative through entirely different, but wholly effective, means. He tapered Beethoven’s long lines, producing small chunks of tight phrases and snappy rhythms—remember, this is a funeral march. It was not exactly fluid, but Fischer compensated with a powerful mass of raw sound in the climactic sections. Whether due to the use of period instruments or the careful orchestral balance, the fugue was breathtakingly clear. Its motto, present in solo woodwind parts and usually overwhelmed by a heap of strings, tolled like funeral bells—a remarkable effect, and all I could think was that Beethoven wanted it heard this way. The accumulation of orchestral effects reminded me more of Mahler than Wagner, especially in the lilting return of C major, a whisper from beyond the grave.

Following such inspiring playing, the final two movements felt like afterthoughts despite being of the utmost brilliance. The scherzo ran like clockwork, with jaunty winds and a beautifully muffled sound in the strings. And the hunting horns of the trio produced a juicy crunch only possible with period instruments. In the finale, the radiant full orchestra was almost disarmingly pleasant, with each variation building towards a bawdy, rustic coda.

If it requires period instruments to render Beethoven like this, then by all means let’s all buy some 18th century flutes. But I don’t think it does. The attention to detail and precision came out of an ensemble which has re-evaluated all of the de-facto practices of the “modern” (aka post-Romantic) orchestra and taken what works, leaving behind what doesn’t. It may have not been the original goal of the HIP movement (back when it was all about Authenticity), but I’m glad this is the direction it took. After hearing the OAE’s brass, I never want to go back to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The blaring horns and trumpets in both symphonies seemed effective and appropriate (and, dare I say it, badass), where loud brass would be vulgar in any Beethoven performance by a CSO-size orchestra. Critics often accuse Fischer of idiosyncratic performances, but I’ll take idiosyncrasy over the alternative any day.

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