I'm OK, You're OK
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 3
Roy Harris: Symphony # 3
Radu Lupu (piano)
Franz Welser-Moest (conductor)
There is a raging argument in this town that centers around the critical community’s contention that major orchestras do not perform enough contemporary music. Regardless of how one might feel about this issue, the corollary polemic that the powers that be program too much Beethoven has always seemed to me both mean-spirited and wrong-headed. But last night’s concert by the Cleveland Orchestra has shaken my resolve just a tad. If ever there were an unnecessary presentation of Beethoven, this was it.
Radu Lupu is here for four concerts during which he will play all five of the concertos. I chose this particular one because the other piece on the menu was the Symphony # 3 of Roy Harris, a severely underperformed composer from the mid-century romantic school in America. This turned out to be a mistake, but let’s talk about Beethoven first.
There was nothing particularly wrong with these renditions of the second and third other than their mind-numbing dullness. Lupu hit most of the notes but missed virtually all of the music. He does have a light touch that is enviable and a solid sense of dynamic variation, but his body language speaks volumes about his phlegmatic detachment. Couple with the conductor’s attitude of “let’s just get on with it” and the entire experience simply seemed profligate.
The orchestra, smallish for the second and fleshed out a bit more for the third, was solid in that sectionalized into silos way that developed in Cleveland under Szell. However, the new man has not unlocked the secret of integrating the parts into the glorious whole of the old regime. This is crisp music making, but it does not make for luxurious listening.
One could go on and on about the significance of the Third Concerto, especially the first movement cadenza. Here’s what I wrote in these pages some years ago for a Barenboim Beethoven festival:
“Biographer Robert Haven Schauffler said it all in the title. His Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music discusses the revolutionary nature of the composer’s accomplishments from the social, political and musical points of view. Coinciding nicely with the new century (it was conceived in 1800), this is the first piece of music to glorify the creator-performer. Without this elevation of the auteur as the force majeure there would be no piano concerti of Brahms or Schumann, Tchaikovsky or Greig, Prokofieff or Rachmaninoff. For the first time, the artist is at least the equal, if not the superior, of the amassed orchestral forces. Listen to the strong left hand of the first movement: this is Beethoven the sonata writer at odds with Beethoven the orchestrator. A classic ego-id battle that remains magically unresolved, for me, the beginning of nineteenth century aesthetics in music is in the movement’s energetic cadenza. Again it is the left hand which bursts through the rhythmic tension (Beethoven was without question the greatest creator of tension in all of music history) to drag us all, kicking and screaming, into a brave new world. One can imagine this larger than life performer dominating the proceedings as no other had ever done before.”
But after hearing this insignificant performance, I really have no desire to expound further.
I was able to mount considerable passion over the Harris performance, however. Here the conductor was simply off the beam, passing over completely the musically colorful landscape so evocative of the great plains of the pioneering nation. Harris worked very hard to highlight the brass passages in this one movement symphony, developing a rather idiosyncratic syncopation to make the listener take notice. In this performance, all of this invention was just so much porridge. The effort was frankly worse than most.
Frederick L. Kirshnit