Beethoven’s Agony Made Easy
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Rodion Shchedrin: Beethoven’s Heiligenstädter Testament (U.S. Premiere)
Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Opus 19
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Opus 68
Gil Shaham (Violin)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (Chief Conductor)
Mariss Jansons (© Manfred Jahreiss/BR)
While hardly familiar in America, I had always enjoyed the music of the now 77-year-old Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, so was greatly anticipating the American premiere of his ungainly titled Beethoven’s Heiligenstädter Testament. That work, I felt, might be more meditative, less semi-comic and merely clever as the other pieces I knew.
After the 12-minute overture, headlining the third concert by the wonderful Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, I realized exactly why I enjoyed Shchedrin before, how wrong I was, and how I may have to give him a miss from now on.
Like his ballets and concertos, Shchedrin is a master of Shostakovich-style orchestration: his brass can growl or glow, he can put together instruments from tonal antipodes and make them sound good. He can write a good soaring melody for solo violin, expand it pleasantly and get the orchestra to come in for triumphal chorale to finish it up. Yes, he may be almost reactionary in his language, but if it works—as it did for Richard Strauss—the language was harmless, and the inspiration was its own reward.
But after the Beethoven’s Heiligenstädter Testament overture, it occurred that being simply harmless was not good enough. And certainly not good enough when you are working with one of the greatest literary monuments in musical history. After all, this Testament showed—like Beethoven’s Fifth itself—the sufferings of a composer, his fears, and his utmost triumph, his credo that his personal agonies were not important compared to the music which he had to create.
Mr. Shchedrin started off with a low brass bark of hurt and agony (resembling the opening of Finlandia), then sending in the strings with two themes to make for a perfect sonata-form. The mood was mainly tragic, but with a few quirks which only Shchedrin could manage. For a time, the flutes were dissonantly softly playing a sound which was almost certainly a reproduction of Beethoven’s illness. (The same kind of sound which the progressively deafer Smetana added to a string quartet). He developed his moods nicely if conventionally enough, leading, naturally to a grand climax—which wasn’t a climax at all. Instead, a French horn played an ascending phrase solo at the end.
Obviously, this was the triumph of Beethoven the artist. Yet it was all too pat, too comfortable. At first, I thought that the plethora of dominant-tonic chords was purposely anachronistic, harking to the early 18th Century. Then it was apparent, no, this is Shchedrin’s language. Unlike Shostakovich, who took a deep breath before attempting Soviet-style music, this seems the Shchedrin natural style, and he is welcome to it.
In fact, one realized the paucity of that music when hearing the Prokofiev First Violin Concerto, which followed. Prokofiev didn’t need a huge orchestra. He rationed his effects, yet each measure counted. Conductor Mariss Jansons reined in the orchestra to allow Gil Shaham to play with the most ravishing tone. The concerto deserves nothing less. It can be demonic, it can be fantastic, but the poetry is present to the very last note.
Mr. Shaham needed to add nothing but his own fingers and tone to make the work sing, and ultimately mesmerize. The preceding Mr. Shchedrin is hardly bombastic, but compared to the economical orchestra and melodies, that composer seemed more elephantine than elegiac.
The work which showed this relatively new orchestra at its best was Maestro Jansons leading Brahms’ First Symphony. First, because the players of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra have warmth, feeling, splendid first chair players, and—considering their 60-year age—a sense of real ensemble.
Second, Maestro Jansons, an intensely busy conductor, led with that very personal touch which invests every phrase with shape and meaning. That first “timpani-tapping” opening was heavy but never ponderous.
We could feel more a sense of Viennese song than Austrian heroism, it was more rhapsodic than passionate, without losing the structure. Thus, the bucolic third movement fit in directly with the first two. And by the time of that theme in the finale—the theme which, when Brahms was asked whether it bore relationship to the Beethoven Ninth theme, replied “Well, any ass can hear that”—Jansons took it with the sense of lyric inspiration rather than Eternal Grandeur. All of which gave a personal grandeur, even spontaneity to the entire work.
Yes, it was a monumental reading, but this monument was made of living elements rather than stone.