Beethoven makes an all-too rare visit to San Francisco: Marek Janowski leads the San Francisco Symphony in the Symphony No. 4 and Piano Concerto No. 3, with Juho Pohjonen

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Juho Pohjonen

Juho Pohjonen

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Saturday, January 22, 2011
Marek Janowski, Conductor

Beethoven – Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Opus 60 (1806)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Opus 37 (1803),
Juho Pohjonen, Piano
Beethoven – Leonore No. 3, Opus 72a (1806)

It was good to have Beethoven back, last week at the San Francisco Symphony. Marek Janowski, like Kurt Masur before him, brings the German repertory to San Francisco from an authentic sensibility and a lifetime of devotion. It was a pleasure to hear our orchestra — so vibrant in Mahler, American music and the Russians — snap back into the German sonority on cue and play convincingly the music that most groups once considered their bread and butter.

A fellow critic recently lamented that Beethoven has retreated to Germany. While not quite literally the case, his comment does reflect the fact that orchestras in the English-speaking world no longer function along a Mozart/Beethoven/Brahms axis, but now seem to be more centered around Berlioz/Tchaikovsky/Mahler/Stravinsky and Prokofiev. This has happened gradually and for a plethora of reasons, not the least of which being our more international world sensibility and the large number of conductors trained in Russia, Finland and England. But symphony orchestras are now also in competition with rock music and cinema for high impact results, and Mahler and the Slavic composers perhaps bring audiences to their feet most readily. Contributing contingently to the shift in repertory has been what you might call the “downsizing” of German composers through the original instruments movement.

Bruckner has largely escaped the trend and, indeed, becomes ever more craggily popular. Strauss, as well. But Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven Symphonies, with the best of intentions, are now frequently reduced to wheezing spectres of their former selves and fail to galvanize in audiences the same visceral excitement they once did. There are few remaining conductors who dare to ravish an audience with 100 players on stage for the Beethoven Fourth Symphony, the way Herbert von Karajan did, with a hard-stick timpanist on risers ready to blast dynamite into a carpet of strings — and Janowski didn’t. But he did amass 60 participants — just enough to belie sounding anemic — and managed to avoid the short and choppy “Urtext” phrasing which has become the norm.

Indeed, Janowski’s Beethoven seems traditional in most respects, so I found myself wishing he had reversed the order of the program and given us a “big” Fourth. As it was, both the Concerto and the Leonore Overture had six basses on stage, the symphony only four, and the illusion of beginning with a smaller piece and moving forward to a larger one belied the fact that the program was essentially ordered backwards: symphony first — then concerto — then overture. Moreover, the Third Concerto is the earliest piece. And the symphony? The most original, I will argue. And even more experimental than people suppose.

As any romantic will tell you, the problem with most music of the classical period is that it does not “do” stasis very well. It is always moving along with great purpose, making a lot of sense — but either leaving behind an earlier mood, as it heads for new destinations, or repeating, sometimes infuriatingly, a journey just taken. (For the non-musical, one wryly notes, any left-brain purposefulness amounts to a defect, compared with elevator music!) But indeed, if Beethoven had died soon after composing the “Eroica,” it would be hard to imagine where the internal dreamscape of Tristan might have come from, or even that in the “Symphonie Fantastique.” The “Eroica” largely chugs along in the old manner, despite its size, and relies on an actual funeral march for its mood-painting.

But listen to the sustained, veiled, psychologically claustrophobic B-flat minor introduction to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, and you realize the future is all there: The sunrise in Mahler 1 — the dawn and sunset of Strauss’ “Eine Alpensinfonie” and of D’Indy’s “Jour d’été à la montagne” — a good bit of Bernard Herrmann — the sinus-headache opening of Sibelius Four —  and not a few Tom and Jerry cartoons!

Beethoven’s innovation is to set the mood with a creepy sustained woodwind tone, and then allow other instruments and the lower strings to “walk” the music along while maintaining it. Indeed, sometimes Beethoven walks you through the memory of the sustained tone, as if it were still there. And in your mind, it is…. This is the first example I know of in orchestral music where the forward movement of the music takes place within a mood, but without affecting it. Indeed, for this critic, the Romantic Era begins here!

Of course, if Beethoven had known how to sustain this quality throughout the symphony, he would have had to be born fifty years later than he was, so before long, the piece settles into a rapid, energizing allegro that might at first be mistaken for “big Haydn,” but even here Beethoven seems to be in his workshop, finding new ways to sustain bold declarations, more vigorous rhythms, unexpected entrances, and the odd moment where instruments are left exposed entirely on their own. The Fourth Symphony may not be a “concerto for orchestra,” but it nonetheless gives some of the instrumental choirs a new and liberated profile, and properly performed, as it was here, radiates sheer zest, joy and virtuosity, almost as though it were.

There is, of course, that enormous spotlight of a kettledrum roll at the outset of the first movement Allegro. Then we have the many timpani-assisted slashing syncopations that follow, answered by long brass chords which anticipate the boldness of the Fifth Symphony. The listener remains aware, of course, of the supposedly “delicate themes” of the Allegro — when one stops to think of them — but the really vivid moments in this music come from the memorably sustained attacks by brass and drums which interrupt them.  This is probably the first symphony whose developmental moments are more consistently interesting as sheer sound than the themes from which they emerge.

Beethoven next composes a slow movement driven entirely by off-kilter timpani, which the other instruments sometimes imitate, a syncopated scherzo that falls all over itself in a reassuringly uncoordinated way, like a nimble but gawky Great Dane puppy, and a finale characterized by brasses and timpani shooting at an endlessly elusive array of high-speed string passagework and string tremoli. There are also early hints of tone-painting. Indeed, as a final timpani barrage fades away, we hear the basses rumble off beautifully into the distance like the storm in Beethoven’s “Pastorale.” But no rainbow this time. Beethoven just bolts the shutters and slams the door.

Marek Janowski was animated and more galvanized in this piece than I’ve seen him seem to be before. Indeed, he achieved what you might call full justice with the symphony, from a poetic standpoint. The audience loved it. But — an old refrain these days — There should have been forty more players on stage!

The conclusion of intermission did reveal something close to a full complement, as Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen joined the orchestra for his debut in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. Pohjonen is but the most recent in a series of surprisingly tall young pianists who have appeared lately with the San Francisco Symphony. His performance was extremely well thought-out and entirely flawless.

In large concerti, there are always moments when both orchestra and soloist are going full-tilt, where the audience can see the pianist playing but not really hear him — or where you do hear him, but conclude that he is merely adding to the welter of sound. A keen ear for harmonic direction and a close collaboration between conductor and soloist prevented this from happening on Saturday. An extremely satisfying, well rehearsed, well-balanced and collaborative account of the piece emerged.

Pohjonen does not seek the legato delivery of David Fray, nor produce the cushioned sonority of Rudolf Buchbinder. At first, in his opening runs, one might suspect him of steeliness, but it turns out Pohjonen is really a poet of dynamics, albeit more on the crystalline side of things, but with an amazing ability to vary dynamics from note to note in fast passages and a keen ear for his total integration into the performance. I don’t know that the Beethoven Third could really be performed much better. And kudos to the principal bassoon, in particular. There is a rapt section of the Largo where quiet arpeggios are supported by the bassoon and flute. One doesn’t normally think of Beethoven as a particularly imaginative orchestrator, but here the sense of color was so evocative, you’d have thought Beethoven invented the Saxophone.

Much is made of the fact that Beethoven was taking Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 for his model in composing the C-minor piano concerto. I note this fact somewhat ruefully — out of pure personal prejudice — since the first movement of the Mozart 24th is extremely long, gloomy and repetitious. A good performance will usually get around this, but in general, the repeats dictated by classical form are compounded in concerti by the tendency to have the soloist mimic whatever the orchestra does. Beethoven gradually gets away from this mirroring in the Third Concerto, but in my view, ruins his violin concerto with mind-numbing repetition. So, beware of influences! In fairness, it is not until something like D’Indy’s “Symphony on a French Mountain Air” comes into being, many decades later, that a piano soloist seems fully integrated with the music, rather than some sort of participant in a contest.

Saturday’s concert concluded with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, in a straightforward, full and exciting performance that made one wish again that the larger forces assembled for it had been on stage for the Fourth Symphony. This is big Beethoven, no question, with a sense of inevitability about it, and Janowski skillfully racheted up the tension to Beethoven’s final wild crunch of a climax, held back just the right amount. The two episodes with offstage trumpets were effectively handled and the trumpets hard to locate, which is as it should be.

All in all, a fine evening. Nice to have German music back!  But the program sequence should have been flipped on its ear.

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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