Chailly, Lortie, and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra play Beethoven at Symphony Hall; Levine All-Beethoven with the BSO

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Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony Hall, February 25, 2010
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Riccardo Chailly, conductor
Louis Lortie, piano

All-Beethoven Program
Emperor Concerto
Seventh Symphony


Thursday, February 18, 2010
James Levine, conductor

All-Beethoven Program
Symphony No. 6, Pastoral
Symphony No. 7

A couple of years ago the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and conductor Riccardo Chailly visited Boston and gave a wonderful Symphony Hall concert of Richard Strauss tone poems. The orchestra, with a lot of young members, played splendidly, with great group spirit. And Chailly gave extraordinary purpose and meaning to the music. He and the orchestra under his leadership showed care and commitment with every bar, every note, and fashioned each piece into a compelling organic whole. Wow! one felt. Friends of mine in New York heard the same program a week later there and had much the same reaction.

The orchestra came to Symphony Hall this past February 25th, and standards were kept up in a Beethoven program consisting of the Emperor Concerto, with pianist Louis Lortie, and the Seventh Symphony. The great Nelson Freire had been announced as pianist, and it was a disappointment not to hear him. But Lortie proved a very agile pianist and a musical one. Beethoven’s showy notes in this piece rippled along brilliantly. And Lortie makes real phrases, with a sense of purpose and direction. The pianist and conductor worked closely together on this occasion, presenting a collaborative and well thought out vision of the piece. Each movement was always going somewhere, and each really led to the next. The piece sounded fresh to me, alert and surprising, even slightly shocking, as Chailly drew new-seeming sounds and lines from the orchestra, building a piece that made perfect—new—sense. The piece showed less grandeur than usual, more edge.

The ovation was great, and after four or five curtain calls Mr. Lortie, feeling, one supposes, that he must do something, sat down and played the finale of the Sonata, opus 81a (“Les Adieux). The Emperor Concerto and Opus 81a are fine music, but middling Beethoven, and after the Emperor it might have been nice to hear something more reflective and profound. The rendition, in any case, was a bit too up-front and straightforward, just notes, no special charm, nor the ecstasy of a loved one’s return that Beethoven was after with this music.

The Seventh Symphony is certainly great Beethoven. It is a proper symphony, with the set of four movements, weighted toward the first, and the development of themes in a drama of ventures away from and returns back to the home key. But the piece anticipates twentieth-century music (and perhaps looks back to pre-classical music) in having a certain “music for orchestra” quality. It does not “go on a journey” like Beethoven’s Eroica, Fifth, or Ninth Symphonies, or great traditional symphonies from Mozart and Haydn to Brahms and Mahler. The Seventh Symphony, called by Wagner “the apotheosis of the dance,” in a sense goes nowhere, just keeps spinning out variations on and intensifications of its basic rhythm and establishing mood, or that of each movement, all of which are closely kin. Beethoven is amazingly inventive in his use of the orchestra, in his bold leaps from key to key, in everything about his varying and intensifying. And he brings it all off with an infectiousness and charm that it does not interest him to achieve in, say, the Grosse Fuge, which is a kindred piece (and, let us be clear, one of his very greatest, for all the absence of charm).

The Leipzig performance was vital, focused at every point, and, once again, purposive. James Levine led the piece with the Boston Symphony Orchestra just a week before, and I in fact preferred that performance. In the grand Poco sostenuto introduction to the first movement, Chailly made the quick-note rising scales a bit light and hurried-seeming, dance-like in not exactly the right sense. Levine, plenty sharp and deft, nevertheless gave the notes each an earthiness, weight, and spring. And so the comparison might continue. With Chailly I sometimes felt the spirit of Berlioz or Verdi’s Falstaff more than the Germanic peasant dancing fused with the Dionysian that is Beethoven’s accomplishment here. Levine’s performance, sunny and flowing, reminded me of his recent one of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloë, with its mad dancing. But Levine’s Seventh Symphony never ceased to sound German, at once earthy and spiritual—like Goethe’s Faust.

This is just quibbling, really—an offer to discriminate between two fine performances of the one piece that happened to occur in such quick succession. And how wonderful in the Leipzig performance, as the finale of the Seventh built up its final frenzy, to see and hear this mostly young assembly of musicians swaying and bobbing to the music in unison, fully concentrated and committed, fully precise, calling more and more out of themselves in response to Chailly’s call, and Beethoven’s.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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