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REVIEW: Opening night at Tanglewood sees Beethoven both grandiose and intimate

Each work received a finely nuanced rendering with each detail carefully shaped as part of an overall conception, not just of individual movements, but of the totality of these large-scale works.

Tanglewood, Friday, July 5

Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D, op. 61, with Gil Shaham, violin soloist

Beethoven, Symphony no. 3 in E-flat, op. 55, “The Eroica,” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by Andris Nelsons

The opening-night crowd was in a festive mood. Two Beethoven staples were on the bill; nothing attracts audiences to Tanglewood like Beethoven. The orchestra sounded fresh, enthusiastic, and tuned in to violin soloist Gil Shaham and conductor Andris Nelsons. The repertory was familiar and accessible: Beethoven at his most outgoing and generous. Shaham is a great audience favorite, as a musician and personality. Nelsons seemed totally at home with both works, sure of his grand architectural vision of the symphony. It was a winning combination.

The danger with such familiar fare is that, if tired or uninspired, the musicians can play automatically, but that was not the case: Each work received a finely nuanced rendering with each detail carefully shaped as part of an overall conception, not just of individual movements, but of the totality of these large-scale works. The orchestra seemed inspired by Shaham’s ultra-collaborative approach. Rather than try to power his way through his solos, he used a wide spectrum of dynamics, daring to taper his sound down almost to inaudibility, shrinking the vast reaches of the shed into a chamber-music setting, an intimate space of personal communication; in such moments we feel as if the violin (Shaham, Beethoven) is speaking personally to each of us. Passage work was scaled back to accompanying other instrumental solos in places where other violinists might retain the spotlight to show off their dexterity. Shaham has no need to do this; while he can play circles around other fiddlers, this performance was about relationships and interactions, and the orchestra responded with extra personal commitment.

Andris Nelsons conducting opening night at Tanglewood. Photo by Hilary Scott.

Throughout the evening, Nelsons adopted a flexible approach to tempo, but in an intelligent way. Tempo flexibility in Beethoven (and in the classical repertory in general) can be tricky, especially when not explicitly called for by the composer. Despite its greatly expanded dimensions and romantic intensity, the “Eroica” is structurally very much a classical work, extending Haydn’s model of the symphony, full of minutely detailed unifying elements in every dimension, especially rhythm. Any tempo modification that does not elucidate this architecture threatens to weaken the drive that plays such a critical part of the experience. There were moments when I feared a loss of momentum, particularly at the start, when Nelsons established a very brisk pace with the two mighty downbeats followed quietly by the flowing cello theme, with rapid-fire repetitions and off-beats in the upper strings, only to have the transition to the next theme throttle back (whether intentionally or accommodating to the changes in texture). By the time the main theme is repeated by the whole orchestra in full cry, the weight of the texture had pulled back the tempo in a way that felt not like an interpretive decision but a practical necessity. Things finally settled down to a more moderate pace, with Nelsons taking advantage of built-in moments of relaxation to slow the pulse even more, permitting him to rebuild tempo and excitement toward the end of the first section.

Out of curiosity, I listened to the iconic 1953 recording by Toscanini, and was completely blown away. While the BSO offered a fine performance, Toscanini’s recording was a transcendent masterpiece. Key to that was his rock-solid tempo in this movement. He started slower than Nelsons, employing Beethoven’s metronome mark, the validity of which has sometimes been questioned; but Toscanini made the best case for it, starting at one second per measure and sticking firmly to it throughout. Rather than sounding rigid, this allowed each of the many and varied musical themes (really just fragments) to be heard in the context of the same overall pulse, granting each its unique character without any conductorial manipulation. This conferred a granite-like solidity to the music that was incredibly exciting, like a force of nature. It may be unfair to compare the BSO’s very good performance with one of the greatest of all time, but it serves to make an important point: Beethoven’s greatness here and elsewhere (including in the violin concerto) relies on an almost mathematical sense of pulsation and correct rhythmic proportion.

This may seem a very technical point, but the whole mighty first movement, which lasts almost as long as some entire symphonies by Haydn or Mozart, is held together by the very simple device of repeated notes (i.e., pulsations), foreshadowed by those first two mighty downbeats: ONE! TWO! The pulsations in the upper strings then move six times as fast; the off-beats move three times as fast (in groups of six). Each subsequent idea groups the repeated notes in either twos as one-two (rest) or sixes as eighth notes, quarter notes, half notes (creating a cross-rhythm), or full bars (dotted half notes). Listen with this in mind (or with a score) and the power of these pulsations is inescapable; even without noticing them, they have their unifying, energizing impact.

The rest of the symphony benefitted from the alertness of the players to Nelsons’ ideas. The second movement funeral march was very slow (below Beethoven’s tempo), but it held solidly throughout, generating powerfully intense feelings of ceremonial grief. (Beethoven’s more moderate pace would feel more noble and restrained.) It is easy to imagine that this is the way Wagner might have conducted it, reaching for maximum intensity (Nelsons is a very good Wagnerian conductor). The movement felt elongated (and might have taxed the patience of the less attentive audience members), but the expressiveness of the playing never flagged (with kudos to the oboe soloist and the double-bass section). The tempo of the scherzo was on the fast side of Beethoven’s, but remained rock steady and appropriately exciting, especially in the virtuosity demanded of the orchestra: We could hear every detail, and the forceful passages were not weighed down with slower tempi. This was particularly true of the horn trio, a true instrumental test that was passed with flying colors and thrilling results. And the finale succeeded in building steadily toward the climactic slow reprise of the “Prometheus” melody, which is the basis for its variations (a dance tune borrowed from Beethoven’s earlier ballet “The Creatures of Prometheus”) in a movement that can easily feel episodic. Overall, this was an “Eroica” that was not to be taken for granted.

The performance of the violin concerto begged for no comparisons. True, Nelsons’ view of this piece is on the muscular side, influenced perhaps by Beethoven’s piano transcription that set a more militaristic tone, with added extra bits for the timpani (as I noted in an earlier review of his performance at Symphony Hall with Christian Tetzlaff). The violin concerto really has two faces, lyrical and quasi-military; most performances can tilt toward the former. During late classicism, these two moods were not mutually exclusive; Haydn very often blended them in his London symphonies (e.g., no. 100, the “Military”). The concerto starts with four quiet timpani strokes, setting in motion another work in which pulsation and momentum will play an important—though less conspicuous—role. In a concerto, the soloist has to have wiggle room to put a personal stamp on the performance. But it is fair to describe this work as a “symphonic” rather than a “virtuosic” concerto. The large-scale formal architecture must cohere while at the same time providing the soloist a chance to add sparkle and color. Lyricism is key here: The violin needs to sing, and I know of no player who excels at this quality more than Gil Shaham. The opening themes stated by the orchestra have a folk-like simplicity; when they return as violin solos in the highest register of the instrument, their full lyrical character is revealed. Despite energetic passages that ornament and elaborate these tunes, that singing quality continues to play the key role throughout, especially toward the end of the development section, where the idealistic tone of the melodic material turns tragic. At this point, I hear a reference to Orfeo’s aria “Che faro senza Euridice” from Gluck’s eponymous opera, especially the five-note motive setting the name “Euridice”; this aria was so well known at the time that it is difficult to imagine that Beethoven was not using it consciously, and how appropriate it seems. Orfeo was the most gifted and magical singer of mythology; Beethoven’s violin seems to aspire to the same state. We also know from Beethoven’s biography that he, too, was seeking his own Euridice, also in vain (at least until he met his “Immortal Beloved”). Whether a coincidence or not, these passages at the very center of the movement offer an emotional key to the work, one that requires a beautiful “bel canto” style of playing, which was offered in abundance by the soloist.

In this context, the continued presence of the opening drum taps (reorchestrated) feel like a foreshadowing of fateful events (as in the Fifth Symphony), but ones which are overcome triumphantly in the final section of the movement.

Elsewhere, lyricism continued to prevail in the performance: The highlight of Shaham’s cadenza was an astonishing section in three-voiced counterpoint. The hymn-like slow movement was filled with high-flying feats of lyricism in the topmost register of the violin. The soloist also set the terms of the rondo finale by throwing in the first statement of the theme almost offhandedly, as if to say, “Here’s a little nothing: Now let’s make something of it together.” The remainder of the movement was an increasingly joyful romp to the finish. Baleful forebodings and unfulfilled longings were banished in the playful give-and-take between soloist and orchestra building to an ecstatic conclusion with the soloist having the last word. At that point, the audience took its cue and their expression of ecstacy took over, flooding the shed.

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