Saturday night’s Cleveland Orchestra concert at Severance Hall, an all-Beethoven program led by Franz Welser-Möst, was an exercise in profundity, frustration, and exaltation. When it comes to selling classical music concert tickets, you can’t go wrong with Beethoven. I didn't see one empty seat in the house, which augers well for the future.
The String Quarter in A minor, Op. 132, is one of my favorite of Beethoven’s works. It was composed in 1825 following an extended illness during which Beethoven nearly died. I vividly recall the first time I heard it: I was 17, riffling through the many records in my grandmother’s basement, and came across on old, scratchy, mono LP of the piece played by the Budapest String Quartet. I placed the LP on the turntable, lowered the stylus, and was riveted by the work from beginning to end. After the record was over, I sat speechless, for at least 15 minutes. It is a challenging and emotionally draining piece.
Saturday night was the first time I’d heard it performed by a full string section – in an arrangement by Welser-Möst himself, which tastefully augmented the cello parts with the double-bass. (Welser-Most previously led the orchestra in an arrangement of Beethoven’s Grand Fugue for strings in summer 2013.) Paradoxically, by performing the work with full strings, the subtleties of Beethoven’s writing were made even more apparent: the work’s stark opening, the constant push and pull of the tempo, and the many unexpected turns the music takes. There are certain passages – particularly in the miraculous slow movement – where Beethoven avoids the tendency of many composers to simply copy & paste a passage from one phrase to another – moving it into a different key, and instead takes the music in another, unanticipated and unanticipatable direction. This is the work of a man who has stared into the face of death and lived to tell the tale. A moving experience, and the audience was blessedly quiet.
Following intermission, pianist Yefim Bronfman took to the stage for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. Now I must confess, this is my least favorite of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos (unless one includes the rarely played arrangement of his Violin Concerto for piano and orchestra, in which case the C minor is the 2nd least favorite). Beethoven, on hearing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor, is claimed to have said “We shall never have an idea to compare with that!” Eventually, Beethoven did put comparable ideas to paper, but they’re not in this Concerto. The work is, aside from the minor key, essentially in the style of his first two Piano Concertos – lacking the subtlety of the G major Concerto and the grandeur of the so-called Emperor Concerto – the last two concertos. This is not to say it’s a bad work, but the themes are standard (although the opening movement’s main theme is a bit defiant for 1804), they are developed in rather ordinary ways, and the work tests neither a performer’s musicality nor technique. Bronfman’s rendition, then, was a very ordinary performance of a highly overplayed work: Nothing offensive, and nothing particularly noteworthy – the pianist’s dynamics never varied much from mezzo-forte and tempos were the dead center norm. The orchestra under Welser-Möst provided a detailed, sympathetic accompaniment, only marred by constant coughing from an audience which had been so silent during the Quartet.
The final work was the Fantasia for piano, vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, Op. 80 – popularly known as the Choral Fantasy. This work was originally written as a crowd pleasing capstone for a monster concert Beethoven arranged in 1808. As the title indicates, the work puts in everything but the kitchen sink. It starts with an extended piano solo which is said to have been similar to the improvisations with which the young Beethoven thrilled audiences during his early career – when he was more known as a pianist than a composer. From there, a theme which anticipates the “Ode to Joy” theme is heard and developed by piano and orchestra – after which vocal soloists and then choir enter and bring the piece to a rousing conclusion. Hearing this performance, I was reminded of something Laurence Olivier said: “Never show an audience your top, because then you have nowhere else to go.” Welser-Möst skillfully held orchestra and chorus in check until a few bars before the final “und Kraft” at the end – which knocked the audience’s proverbial socks off.