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Hero Sandwich

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
11/03/2003 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto; Symphony # 3
Nikolaj Znaider (violin)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Fedoseyev (conductor)

“…Beethoven worked and worked at the main theme of the first movement of his “Eroica” until it achieved a degree of graspability comparable to a sentence of the ‘Our Father’…”

Anton Webern, letter to Hildegard Jone, August 6, 1928

The vortex of revisionist history is so strong in modern scholarship that often it is the reaction to, rather than the creation of, events which remains uppermost in the memory, coloring the past with a tentative, melancholy tinge. While it is true and significant that Beethoven reneged on his thoughts of Napoleon as a great man and all know the ultimate irony of the sobriquets “Emperor” and “Eroica”, one mustn’t lose sight of the heady air of majesty that first surrounded the composition of the Symphony # 3, the first pillar in that mightiest of edifices known as 19th century thought. Those few savants (and Beethoven was certainly one of them) who realized how society had changed dramatically just in time for the 1800’s to come into being, could palpably, as Stefan George and Arnold Schoenberg would sing 100 years later, “…feel the air of a new planet”.

In some senses, of course, the “Eroica” is simply an organic and logical extension of intimations from the prior era, a natural child of the “Jupiter”. Two seemingly contradictory aspects, however, are markedly different from those of the so recently abandoned enlightenment: the intensely personal relationship of a man to his god and the inevitable nature of death as an unfeeling byproduct of Hegelian synthesis. Beethoven in his bipolar splendor is the perfect herald of a century that would produce not only the tumultuous first movement of Bruckner’s Symphony # 9 but also Tolstoy’s dispassionate description of the dying soldier’s view of the sky (or the seeming contemplation of the upturned face cards from Crane’s “Blue Hotel”). The funeral march alone from this most revolutionary of works, now in the bicentennial year of its construction, would have guaranteed the admission of its composer to the pantheon of European art, for it is the very first example since ancient times of the universality of the human condition: the subject of its thanatological speculations is no longer a deity (nor a symbolic representation of one) nor even an aristocrat, but rather an ordinary infantryman (or composer). In our jaded age, the very concept of heroism is often discredited (at least in the academic community), but, hopefully, we can all still be moved by the power of superb musicianship.

Tonight’s version of the symphony was naturalistic and rough-hewn. Perhaps not for everyone (my companion found it “noisy”), this was Beethoven at his most raucous, stretching the parameters of the score so that, had they rolled out a couple of cannons onto the Avery Fisher stage, their firing would have seemed right in tune. The opening strokes were unabashedly shocking, that famous theme elemental. A truly titanic performance, aided and abetted by a superb horn section and darkly colored strings who stayed together throughout (even including some loss of intonation by the fourth movement). Maestro Fedoseyev was particularly adept at whipping up appropriate frenzy and this fine ensemble, the first to ever perform Bruckner’s final opus, produced dramatic crescendos and swirling undercurrents reminiscent of the best at Bayreuth. Much has been made recently of the acoustics here at Lincoln Center; this was an example of their exemplary nature for spine-tingling freshness. This same rendition at Carnegie would have been diminished by too smooth of a blending, too pretty of a sound. For full-bodied Beethoven, this setting was ideal.

The shining visual entrance of the tuba signaled a dessert of the rich Viennese variety as we were all treated to a journey back in time to when the Danube was actually blue. Not just the waltz but the entire Johann Strauss suite was in the offing and, for those who stayed, was served with large portions of panache (the subtle difference between schlag and schlock). Youthful exuberance permeated the opening half of the program, but this was not necessarily a desirable overlay, as soloist Nikolaj Znaider catalogued every superficial effect in the old warhorse, dressed tonight in a sequined blanket. His choice of the showy Kreisler cadenzas was a telling one: this performance was so over the top as to make one regret all of its repetitions. The orchestra was impressive, however, even if the violinist was not, playing often at a mature and quiet level of quality difficult to achieve and sustain. The last movement was jaunty enough to start, but quickly degenerated into just another exhibition of empty gymnastics, ending with a meretricious flourish rather than the much more satisfying diminuendo and soft utterance of a more musically secure performer.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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