An All-Beethoven Evening
BSO Presents ConcertosBy Jonathan Richmond
Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3
Alfred Brendel, Piano.
Conducted by Seizi Ozawa
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall, April 17.
Playing all five Beethoven piano concertos in a series of three all-Beethoven concerts makes for a concentrated experience, and the first of the three programs -- given by Alfred Brendel with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa -- both illuminated the scope of Beethoven’s work and prompted questions into how it should be performed.
The evening opened with Beethoven’s Overture to the Creatures of Prometheus. Given a solid performance, the strings nonetheless sounded on the heavy side and without quite the precision one might expect. This was to be a keynote to the concert as a whole, where a traditional heavyweight approach eschewed the more modern preference for a lighterweight, brisker sound. Within the orchestra, it was the woodwinds which consistently gave most delight, the slow tempi taken by Seiji Ozawa accentuating the beauty of their phrasing.
The Piano Concerto No. 1 opened with lovely warbling winds and a fluent piano entry. Brendel’s solo playing became totally absorbed, dancing across the keyboard with serene eloquence. The cadenza started simply enough, but caught the audience unawares as it grew in profundity. Tempi, generally on the slow side, became too slack for the second movement. Brendel’s playing was nonetheless lyrical and intense. This was not the dreamy approach of Murray Perahia -- Brendel was more intellectual and controlled, as if lost in the religion of Beethoven rather than in romantic love. There is something distinctly Mozartean about the way the clarinet captures the heart and soul in this movement, and clarinet solo work provided a rapturous foil to Brendel’s introspective piano playing.
Brendel brought out the elements of burlesque which give the final movement its great charm to bring the concerto to a jolly conclusion. It is in movements such as these, however, that the type of early piano Beethoven would have known -- with its rapid dampening of sound and greater clarity of each note than is possible on a modern concert grand -- comes into its own. Brendel’s performance with the BSO lacked the energy of my favorite recording of this work, by Steven Lubin with the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood. Not only was it impossible to pick out the sound of each note on the piano, but the orchestral approach was simply too relaxed for a movement where tension and control are all-important.
The performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto also had its high points: the cadenza was wonderfully nuanced and well-measured, while piano playing in the second movement was extremely serious, involved, and involving. There was excellent string playing here, showing that the argument about whether to play Beethoven fast or slow is far from clear-cut. Ultimately, however, the performance lacked snappiness. Despite its many moments of pleasure, Ozawa’s choices of tempi were not sustainable, and the work did not manage to come together as a whole.
Note: The remaining all-Beethoven performances are sold out, but 100 rush tickets will be available on Tuesday, April 24, one to a purchaser, at 5 p.m. Due to expected demand, you should probably in line an hour or more earlier.