For those of us who do not regularly have the opportunity to be in Europe, public broadcasters come to the rescue. Thanks to WFMT Fine Arts Network and WNED (I tune in to the Buffalo outlet) an all-Beethoven program from the 2001 Beethoven Festival in Bonn (although this program took place on Cologne’s huge Philharmonie) was broadcast yesterday.
Pianist extraordinaire, Alfred Brendel, was the soloist in the G Major Concerto, which was easily the program’s highlight. The first movement opened magically: Brendel chose understatement to deliver the—amazingly for the time—unaccompanied first subject. Then, breathtakingly, Sir Simon Rattle and the Vienna strings delivered a true pianissimo, so rare in orchestral playing these days. I was elated and looked forward to a reading of care and depth, but, in what would become more commonplace than exceptional pitch problems, the sour principal oboe ruined that chance with his first entry.
Nonetheless, Brendel saved the day by cajoling his colleagues to keep up and share the mystery and drama of this stunning score. Throughout the remainder of the “Allegro moderato” (and the seldom-heard alternate cadenza) Beethoven’s solo lines were presented with characteristic clarity, accuracy and verve; the fiendishly difficult passage-work, trills and double-thirds tossed off with aplomb. What a pity that Rattle couldn’t respond in kind and keep his forces together—particularly when the soloist cascaded in and out of the tuttis.
The passionate dialogue that starts with the strings and piano at odds with one another and ends with the most beguiling appoggiatura in the repertoire (leaving no doubt as to who triumphed in this artistic dual) is more a seventy-two bar transition than “the slow movement.”
Brendel’s total control and subtle range of colour kept me on the edge of my seat. The VPO rose to his challenge and—for the first time that night—delivered true staccati. All the more infuriating, then, Rattle chose to truncate the pivotal dominant quarter-note, successfully ruining the juxtaposition of the solo line steadily making its case, even after being shouted down. Such a pity.
The “Rondo” flew along happily; any notes that were lost in the inner voices were more than made up for by the drive and zest of the whole. Especially memorable was Brendel’s liquid gold in the highest reaches—arguably the finest legato technique of any pianist before the public today.
In the intermission interview, Rattle, when asked how he brought anything new to the so frequently performed and recorded Beethoven symphonies said “There are more ways that these [symphonies] can be packed into the suitcase.” He went on to state that his previous background as a tympanist provided an excellent understanding of one of the essential keys to unlocking the truth of these nine masterworks: pulse.
Unfortunately, given his reading of the “Pastoral,” it would have been better to have lost the luggage, for—like Pandora’s Box—once this performance opened, there was no way to put it back.
As with the concerto, the opening measures were filled with promise: the oboist had either changed reeds or another player took the chair; the strings ably demonstrated their legendary, homogeneous tone (which I’d experienced in person at the 1984 Lucerne Festival in a program conducted by Herbert von Karajan, consisting of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and Brahms’ First Symphony and have seldom heard such consistent playing since) but Rattle soon started meddling with the master’s score. A repugnant affectation that made no musical sense whatever robbed the tied half-notes of their harmonic and structural significance, guaranteeing the loss of any feeling of arrival at the crisis and climax. The effect produced was an asthmatic wheezing.
The second movement’s brook was polluted with accompanying figures that had more lift than motion; starting the bird-call trills “above” soon morphed from comical to annoying. The recording engineer, as was also evident earlier, seemed bent on boosting the bass to the point that the cello/bass pizzicati threatened to push the rest of the band out of the speakers.
The brilliant “Scherzo” had few of its half-notes played to their intended value, resulting in frenzy—rather than merry-making and in distinct contrast to the best delivery of the opening grace notes that I have ever heard. The storm was loud and busy, but too many tympani shots missed their targets. I wished a collective valium could have been metaphorically administered to all so that spirit-affirming final movement could relax-and-savour rather than push-and-declaim.
All of that withstanding, those in the hall shouted bravos and clapped with enthusiasm. I’ll just go on my way, still in search of a performance that transcends the notes. JWR