Sunday, August 14, 2011

Mostly Mozart Festival - All-Beethoven - 08/12/11

Conductor: Louis Langrée
Beethoven: Leonore Overture No 2, Op. 72a
Beethoven: Concerto No 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 19 – Jeremy Denk
Beethoven: Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? From Fidelio, Op. 72 – Christine Brewster
Beethoven: Symphony No 8 in F Major, Op. 93

After paying our respects to all-mighty Mozart last week with Don Giovanni, my friend Nicole and I decided to spread our discriminating love and move on to another worthy Viennese master with an all-Beethoven feast on Friday evening. The program, which, except for Fidelio’s aria, could have easily been entitled “Beethoven light”, sounded compelling enough, but what immediately got – and steadily kept – our undivided attention was the irresistible prospect of hearing terrific pianist Jeremy Denk, one of our top local favorites, perform Beethoven live. Neither of us was familiar with the piano concerto No 2, but if we were going to become acquainted with it, we figured that we might as well do it in the right company, and Jeremy sounded just like the man for it.

The Leonore Overture No 2 may not be as well-known as the subsequent, more intense and better constructed No 3, but its emphasis on quiet details and emotional elements makes it probably a better overall reflection of the opera Fidelio. All in all, it was just as fitting a concert opening as any other, and the lively, heart-warming music produced by the orchestra enthusiastically conducted by ever-jovial Louis Langrée definitely sounded like a good omen for the rest of the evening.
Written by the young Beethoven for his own use when he was trying to show the world what an incredible piano prodigy he was, his piano concerto No 2 sounds a lot like some piano pieces composed by an earlier incredible piano prodigy. But once in a while, amidst all the lovely Mozartian elegance and lightness, discreet and not so discreet touches of drama unexpectedly spring up. On Friday night, Jeremy Denk spiritedly breathed new and unabashedly vibrant life into this relatively lesser work and brilliantly proved one more time why he is one of the hottest pianists around today. With the insouciantly playful first and last movements firmly book-ending the exquisite Adagio, and Beethoven’s own tricky cadenza showcasing the soloist’s virtuosic chops, I can only say that this introductory interpretation is going to be difficult to match.
After intermission, the time had come for full-blown drama with one of Fidelio’s major arias, through which the heroine Leonore finally gets a chance to vent all her frustrations, fears and resolve. Although Beethoven famously struggled to no end when trying to write for the stage, Fidelio, his one and only opera, can readily stand on its own. On Friday night, American soprano Christine Brewster had the challenging task of embodying a fairly short, but narratively crucial and emotionally gripping moment out of context, and the result was decidedly mixed. Sheer power for sure abounded, but there was not much else going on and it was all over pretty quickly, making us quizzically wonder what had just hit us.
But we soon entered a territory that Beethoven had long fully and grandly mastered with his Symphony No 8. Far from his ground-breaking works, it is a mostly conventional, but still immensely enjoyable journey, which was ironically written during one of the most turbulent periods of the composer’s life in the bucolic Austrian town of Linz. Considering the predominantly healthy, life-affirming feelings the music conveys it may very well be a case where an idyllic environment trumped all internal turmoil. Back at the Avery Fisher Hall, conductor and orchestra joined forces to treat us to a straight-forward, buoyant account of it, a fitting tribute to a musical tradition that was about to be unceremoniously invaded by the heart-on-sleeve sentimentality of Romanticism, and a fully satisfying conclusion to our Beethovenian evening.

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