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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Concert Review: Taking the Beethoven Cure

Christoph von Dohnányi returns to the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Christoph von Dohnányi. Photo © Decca Classics/Universal Music Group.
When Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was first heard by a Vienna audience, it was on a freezing cold night in the Austrian capital and part of a four and a half hour concert that also featured the premiere of the Sixth. So perhaps it was fitting that temperatures outside Avery Fisher Hall were bitter cold on Friday night for an all-Beethoven concert at the New York Philharmonic.

The program started with Beethoven's Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus. The venerable Christoph von Dohnányi (he's 83 and vigorous) led this brief work with vigor, creating clean orchestral textures to support Beethoven's rhythms and melodic ideas. It was the epitome of this veteran conductor's style: every note of the work's architecture crisply played, clearly balanced and driven forward with firm purpose.

If Prometheus was the young Beethoven's first public success, then the Piano Concerto No. 1 cemented his reputation as a budding orchestral composer and piano soloist. Here, Mr. Dohnányi was joined by pianist Radu Lupu, the eminent Romanian virtuoso who applies his skills strictly to music of the Classical and early Romantic eras.

Mr. Lupu is revered for his light-fingered legato and serious approach to this music. He generated graceful notes in the first movement cadenzas. He spent much of the slow movement exploring the unusual tonal colors that made this work revolutionary--ideas which sometimes lie buried in the score. The final movement, with its playful dance of notes over a driving ostinato looks forward to the symphonies with its repeated, obsessive five-note figures, played here with an easy charm.

The Fifth Symphony is the epitome of repetition and obsession in Beethoven, with each of the four movements based on the same four-note rhythm. Mr. Dohnányi led the famous Allegro con brio at a breathless pace, driving the precise machine of the Philharmonic through the work's stops and starts with a sure hand. He was helped by fine playing in the cadenzas and a firm, rich tone from the strings.

In the slow movement, the veteran conductor managed the trick of balancing the orchestra in such a way that the figured bass was heard with perfect clarity. Cellos and basses played this long, fugal passage with the clarity of a Bach organ passage in a thorough exploration of Beethoven's harmonic ideas. The stop-start Scherzo traded the four-note theme from section to section, as violins and violas alternated pizzicato and bowed phrases.

The third and fourth movements of the Fifth are played attaca: one cannot (ideally) hear the line of demarcation between the Scherzo and final Allegro. Here, the brass rang out in triumph with low instruments carrying out seemingly endless iterations of the "fate" theme from the first movement. Only in the final bars did the endless knocking stop, as the orchestra found the language to resolve its crisis and in doing so, exhilerate the listener.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.