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The Ineffable Beethoven Effect

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
08/04/2017 -  & August 9, 2017
Ludwig van Beethoven: Overture to Egmont, Opus 84 – Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Opus 15 – Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Opus 92
Beatrice Rana (Pianist)
Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Louis Langrée (Music Director/Conductor)

B. Rana (© Courtesy of the Artist)

Were I elected to be World Dictator, my second proclamation would be: “With the exception of two or three orchestras, no ensemble should ever open a concert with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.”

From the first mighty F Minor chord, and the ponderous sarabande and the short pleading of solo winds, not even the best-trained orchestras can achieve the Promethean effect, and not even the best conductors can hold an entire orchestra to the perfect rhythms without a few fractious players coming in late and early.

And while last night’s all-Beethoven concert was a triumphal affair, even the slightest smudge for the introduction of Egmont could stop the theoretically unstoppable intensity.

Conductor Louis Langrée tried his best with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, but the first two minutes of the Overture were sadly sagging. And while the Allegro con brio was exciting enough, one inevitably returned to that droopy beginning.

(Oh, my First Proclamation would be replacing ambulance and fire-engine sirens, with Monteverdi’s Orfeo Overture.)

Following Egmont that celebrated young Italian pianist Beatrice Rana gave a sparkling performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. In theory, audiences should be so overwhelmed by Egmont they would ignore this early work. But in a world saturated with noise, audiences simply follow the protocol of concerts and switch from one emotion to the other.

Ms. Rana, though, is quite the phenomena. Before the concert, she had offered a reportedly excellent Bach Second Partita, so the First Concerto could have seemed like child’s play. Actually, when he wrote this, Beethoven was more famed as an improviser than a serious composer, and much of the music could be the exercises of a would-be Titan. But Ms. Rana never allowed any illusion of improvising.

She took the first movement with attentive seriousness, even during the most propulsive measures. With faultless trills and octave runs and a splendid technique, one felt her respect for the music throughout. The vitality, the surprises, the magic were part of the package. And in Beethoven’s mini-cadenza (one feels that the composer would have gone on for 30 minutes more!), we had that same sense of confidence and lovely playing.

The slow movement was played not with solemnity but a Chopin-esque delicacy on the Steinway, less pathos than sheer lyricism. As for the finale, I never like it played at a Presto pace, simply because Beethoven generated invention after invention. And one would like to shout out, “Oh, let’s hear that crazy rhythm again”, or “Bounce out that syncopation! Play it with exaggeration.”

Like most conductors, Mr. Langrée started with a Presto rather than Beethoven’s simple Allegro, simply shoving the inventions into an overfilled closet. Ms. Rana obviously was happy with that, and their coordination was superb. It was a jolly movement, beautifully executed. And perhaps only Philistines like myself would prefer less idiosyncrasies, more eccentricities.

All this evaporated with Mr. Langrée’s truly masterful Seventh Symphony. What must have been a delirious experience for 1812’s conservative audience (composer Weber famously said that “Beethoven was ready for the mad house”) and the “apotheosis of the dance” for Richard Wagner’s late Romantic sensibilities became here a brisk, commanding and well contained massive symphony.

The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra horns and brasses played their frequent martial calls with fervor, the strings bounced up and down, the percussion was neat pointing all the way through the very brio finale.

Ah, but what about the second movement, that so strange Allegretto with the repeated notes like a military tattoo. This was the center of the symphony, a kind of non-funereal march of death. Like the archetypal Creation myth, it rises from a mist, a harmony and rhythm, developing with pressure into a plain but infective melody which can take any shape.

Beethoven in his later years reportedly said it should not be taken too quickly, that his “Allegretto” sign should have been “Allegretto quasi Andante”. But since he never wrote that down, conductors have chosen their own tempos.

Mr. Langrée took this at a very brisk pace. Not too quickly, but with a sense that this is the music, we shouldn’t dwell on it, the sounds speak for themselves, the last enigmatic dissonance is the problem of the audience, not the conductor.

Accepting this, though, we had a rollicking performance, certainly projecting more of Weber’s delirium than Wagner’s dance. And if this was the conductor’s choice, he now has the orchestra to carry out his commands with...well, with Beethoven brio.

Harry Rolnick



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