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Classical Review: Beethoven Is King at Symphony Hall

BSO Steps Up to Challenging Program

By Jacqueline O’Connor

Boston Symphony Orchestra

James Levine, conductor

Jonathan Biss, piano

Miriam Fried, violin

Ralph Kirshbaum, cello

Symphony Hall, Boston

Saturday, Feb. 11, 8 p.m.

As in every concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of James Levine, this all-Beethoven concert started sluggishly. Not deterred by the mediocrity of the opening, though, the BSO eventually brought the audience to its feet in what turned out to be one of its most fantastic performances. The program began with Beethoven’s Second Symphony, Op. 36, and his Concerto in C for piano, violin, and cello, also known as “The Triple Concerto.” After intermission, the concert concluded with the real highlight of the evening, a stellar performance of Symphony No. 7, Op. 92.

Levine chose the pieces for this program not only to highlight the brilliance of Beethoven, but also to show the progression of his work throughout the middle composing period of his life. In his program notes, Levine states that “planning this all-Beethoven program in the context of our Beethoven/Schoenberg cycle afforded a special kind of opportunity — to choose not just ‘any great Beethoven masterpieces’ that might work well in a single concert, but to program several of the composer’s masterpieces that relate specifically to how he developed or adjusted his musical style and language at different times in his career.” Levine’s goal was certainly realized throughout the night, as it was very clear from the programming, as well as the artistic interpretation of the works, that a metamorphosis was happening in the work of this legendary composer.

Though it started without much energy, the BSO’s performance of Symphony No. 2 still showed the essence of early Beethoven and the classical influence. The Adagio molto that opens the piece was played with disinterest and strict rhythm, instead of a graceful melodic feel that one would expect. However, with the Allegro con brio, the second theme of the piece, the orchestra seemed to wake up, and despite some coordination issues between some of the string sections during the fast passages, the piece became much more enjoyable to listen to. The second movement followed in the vein of the opening of the first — intonation issues and a lack of mysterioso and expression made this otherwise gorgeous movement sound quite trite. Despite the faulty start, though, the last two movements were excellent. The pronounced dynamic contrasts and fun conversation between string sections highlighted the Scherzo movement. The piece ended with a fantastic Allegro molto where for the first time in the concert, the orchestra appeared to be enjoying the music it was playing.

Overall, the concert was shaping up to be very good. Though the winds could have played out more in the more melodic parts and the strings could have put more intrigue into the continuo parts, the BSO found a remarkable classical sound. As a result, the very enthusiastic audience responded well after the first piece.

Beethoven’s concertos, for any instrument, are truly exceptional in the way they were written for the orchestra — until the soloists begin to play, the music is so rich and bold that one could mistake it for a symphony. This is certainly true in the opening of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, the second piece on Saturday evening’s program. The soloists were a delightful bunch, the pianist was actually the son of the violinist, and the three of them certainly seemed to enjoy the performance. Who could blame them? This piece captures the best of both worlds — the excitement and virtuosity of a concerto and the intimacy and harmony of chamber music. There were many times, especially in the second and third movements, where the feel of a duet or a trio was so pronounced it was easy to forget that the orchestra was there.

For the most part, the soloists were excellent, especially in the final and most difficult movement, Rondo alla Polacca. This movement featured a lively tempo and very intricate tutti passages where all three soloists seemed surprisingly comfortable and expressive. The cellist, Ralph Kirshbaum, stole the show, as was probably Beethoven’s intention. All three movements feature gorgeous cello solos in a difficult high register of the instrument. Despite this, Kirshbaum was able to make the instrument project and sing quite beautifully. The pianist, Jonathan Biss, played quite expressively and especially well in the final movement. Unfortunately, violinist Miriam Fried was disappointing in comparison to the other two soloists. She had many intonation issues in the first two movements and despite the beautiful melodies in her part, she could not seem to produce a pleasing tone in the first and second movements. This changed, however, in the third when a brighter tone was called for; it became obvious that she had practiced this movement a little more than the others.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 is truly one of the greatest pieces ever written, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance brought out all the beauty and greatness of the piece. This symphony is a wonderful balance between ensemble playing and several excellent solo lines. The ensemble playing was quite good at the coda of the first movement and the last two movements. The third movement, a Presto, was played especially well and accurately. Historically, James Levine lets rhythmic togetherness slide in the name of interpretation, but on Saturday night the orchestra was dead-on. The final movement, Allegro con brio, was triumphant, highlighting the brilliance of this orchestra.

Several excellent solo sections added sparkle to the already solid performance. The oboist, who opens the piece, was in excellent form and managed to produce a very lyrical sound. The flutist, who brings in the second theme of the first movement, was especially good and defined the Vivace mood for the rest of the movement. Above all, though, the French Horn section must be commended for their excellent performance. Their versatility shook the hall at the end of the first movement, brought tears to the eyes of listeners in the second movement, and moved people to their feet at the end of the piece.

The only flaws of the second half were in the tempos chosen for the second and third movements. The Allegretto, an interesting marking for what sounds like a death march, was a bit too fast and lost some of the somber lyricism for which this piece is known. Also, the second theme in the third movement (played by the wind section), which almost sounds like a hunting call, was played much too quickly and lost the stately air it was supposed to have.

James Levine described this concert as an example of how Beethoven progressed during his middle period of composing. In reality, this concert just showed how much the famous composer stayed the same. Each piece, though progressively less classical and more romantic in nature, is built on simple scales and arpeggios that are given ingenious twists and rhythms to produce some of the most enjoyable and incredible music ever written. Though this middle period, Beethoven not only retained his technical grounding, but also the grace, power, and genius of his art. The Boston Symphony Orchestra certainly rose to the occasion and did justice to the only name above the stage at Symphony Hall — Beethoven.