David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
02/05/2017 - & January 27, 28, 29 (Budapest), February 4 (Newark), 8 (Chicago), 12 (Boston), 2017
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphonies No. 1 in C major, Op. 21, & No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
Richard Goode (piano)
Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor)
I. Fischer (© Marco Borggreve)
“Both in the popular imagination and among cognoscenti, Beethoven became a moralist, thinker, novelist, poet, and psychologist with whom the individual listener could legitimately engage...”
Leon Botstein, The Search for Meaning in Beethoven
Like Sir George Solti, I did not really pay attention to Beethoven until I was well into my thirties. There is no easily expressed reason for this, as I had studied music intensely from about the age of seven. Two composers – Beethoven and Sibelius – simply “fell through the cracks” and each eventually rewarded me with intense emotional feedback and intellectual nourishment. One side effect of this unconventional education (Solti often talked about this) is a true gratitude to the composer for hoarding so many gigantic masterpieces for me to chew on as I got older.
Reviewing music honestly and objectively is an extremely difficult art. If one acknowledges that a work is extraordinarily sublime or powerful, then it is very hard to judge its performance on its own merits, as opposed to praising the composer to the skies and taking the musicians along for the ride. This is especially true of Beethoven, who takes one’s breath away at virtually every turn of musical phrase. With a program consisting of three of the most sublime members of the orchestral pantheon, the critic’s task is almost impossible, but we’ll try.
Beethoven famously said that he had learned nothing from Haydn but the Symphony No. 1 belies that statement. Clearly Mr. Fischer was shooting for something completely different. His ensemble was very large by Beethovenian standards and situated idiosyncratically with the timpani right up front just under the maestro’s nose. The sound was quite big – too big in fact for an accurate reconstruction of Beethoven – but masterfully handled, every thematic delight clearly presented. This was neither full-blown modernism nor period instrument fussiness, rather the type of sound one would expect from a modern instrumental work. The underlying orchestral tension was palpably obvious but secure in tensile strength and remarkable in its agility. Neither Beethoven nor Haydn but rather vintage Fischer.
Speaking to some high school students before a concert, I asked if all of the hours of intense practice and study were worth the effort. One replied something to the effect that indeed it was deeply rewarding as long as they could participate in performances at such a high level as Beethoven’s Fifth. Or a better story: Brahms was asked if the last movement of one of his chamber pieces was modeled on the opening of the Beethoven in question. The composer, never accused of extreme politeness, replied “Any damned fool can see that!”
Such a famous work requires no explication, but just a few observations. What does one do with the old chestnut? Maestro Fischer clearly decided to make it his own. In the first movement a little rubato made the phrasing unique and added a bit of extra energy to the score. The antiphonal nature of the first allegro was the highlight of the third movement. All was going along swimmingly in the last movement, Beethoven being allowed to emphasize the “wrong notes” in the score only to “correct” them for a final spine-tingling resolution, when suddenly we were jolted into remembering that this was an Iván Fischer performance (a quick aside: at his last appearance here he had the entire orchestra sing “Silent Light”, a snippet from orthodox liturgy) when about twenty students from Bard College and the Juilliard School ran onto the stage with their instruments and music stands and joined in the final passages. I am a former Juilliard parent and so enjoyed the energy and pride, however the entire episode seemed more like a stunt than a thoughtful musical embellishment. In the nineteenth century in Hungary, Mr. Fischer would have made a colorful carnival director. All was not well that ended not well, although the crowd loved the entertainment value and “school spirit” of the young interlopers.
Altogether a very idiosyncratic concert during a very exciting week, as Lincoln Center came out with next year’s schedule. Although it is always a bit dangerous to look ahead and one should always keep their expectations low, this unpredictable maestro and ensemble will be back in January 2018 with Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing one of the Beethoven concertos and the orchestra offering the ecstatic Symphony No. 2 of Rachmaninoff.
Richard Goode has by now gained for himself a position as one of the towering performers before the public. The title “legendary” is bestowed too often on musicians, but that description fits this thoughtful, great performer who holds an unusually high esteem among fellow pianists.
His New York appearances as a soloist with orchestra are all too seldom and it was good to see him on stage with an ensemble that some years ago assisted him in a recording of all the Beethoven piano concertos. On Sunday afternoon he was in fine form and produced his typical pearly touch and quicksilver treatment of the passagework reminding one a tad of Schnabel. The Piano Concerto in G Major is known as the most lyrical and pastoral of Beethoven’s concertos and generally speaking there are two different avenues that lead to its interpretation.
As it is with the famous piano sonata that holds opus number 57, the Appassionata, many pianists see in this concerto yet another vehicle for a display of their virtuosity. And yet in my opinion neither of the works should be treated as strictly virtuoso compositions. I strongly believe that in that concerto especially every note should be played with a certain spiritual gravity and the flourishes, arpeggiated chords and passage works are of a melodic nature. They may be made out of fast notes yet the notes should sound a fast melody. In this Fourth Concerto the opening, this most unusual opening of any solo concerto since Mozart’s innovative Piano Concerto No. 9 in E flat, has a certain notoriety. Of course it is not all that difficult technically –however pianists often agonize how to place the first G Major chord and how fast to execute the simple scale. This Mr. Goode achieved beautifully. What I was missing was the sense of calm: the standard for this pianist’s propensity and the forward motion in the fast passages, which on occasion went almost ahead of the orchestra. Mr. Goode used Beethoven’s own cadenza and he shone in it: that was the high point of the Allegro moderato. Perhaps it was the “moderato” part which this movement lacked the most.
The relatively brief second movement, less than 5 minutes long, can be considered either an introduction to the finale Rondo or an anguished, heart-wrenching dialogue. One should keep in mind that the brevity of the middle movement was demonstrated in other works from this period: the Triple Concerto, “Waldstein” Sonata (there it really was an Introduzione) or Sonata in A Major for piano and cello.
This one is special because it is so dramatic: I guess the description proposed by some musicologists, who see in this music the story of Orpheus pleading with the Furies to permit him entrance to the underworld so that he can retrieve his dead wife Eurydice, is as good as any. Probably the listener would feel the anger of orchestral utterances and pleading of the piano who answers even without knowing the mythical story. The culminating cadenza when the piano finally takes over, in one of the most terrifying crescendos in the whole piano literature, proves that there was a singular message that the composer wanted to convey. Here Mr. Fischer and his band supported the pianist with the most delicate, subtle sound.
What should be the proper tempo for the final movement? The mood and character are cheerful, which gave some commentators eager to have a nickname for any composition a reason to call it “The Lark”. But sometimes the fingers of the pianist go faster than the pulse would allow and with the performance heard on Sunday again the technical elements already described seemed to affect the execution. Yet it would be unfair to concentrate only on the technical shortcomings of the performance and to forget the elegance and energy, care given to the sound production – and Mr. Goode, assisted by what looked like a German Steinway – produced throughout a stunningly beautiful sound and general musicality. At the end the enthusiastic audience jumped to its feet and vigorously applauded their favorite New York son.