CONCERT REVIEW Opening to ‘The Complete Symphonies’ Garners Applause

Even in Levine’s Absence, BSO Pays Tribute to Beethoven

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor

Symphony Hall, Boston, MA

October 24, 2009

Conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the Boston Symphony Orchestra to a fabulous performance in a sold-out program featuring Beethoven’s Symphony Nos. 1, 2 and 5.

This was the first concert in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s The Complete Symphonies series featuring all of Beethoven’s symphonies over four episodes. Originally, BSO Music Director James Levine was scheduled to conduct every program of this series. However, he had to undergo back surgery earlier and was advised to refrain from conducting. Maestro Frühbeck de Burgos, currently chief conductor and artistic director of the Dresden Philharmonic, conducted the orchestra in the series premiere in place of Maestro Levine.

Maestro Frühbeck de Burgos was quite conservative in his interpretations. There were no fancy, whimsical tempo changes, and the tempi he chose made the music sound very deliberate. This is not a complaint; while the tempi were slightly on the slower side, nothing was dull. This was particularly apparent in the Fifth Symphony where, even though it was not played very fast, all the grandeur was extremely apparent, the slight slowness of the tempo only adding to the elegance of the piece. But more on that later.

The concert opened with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major. The orchestra was very well synchronized and it took me a while to notice that Maestro Frühbeck de Burgos was conducting without a score. (Maestro Frühbeck de Burgos is a veteran and this is Beethoven’s symphony we are talking about so this is somewhat expected, but I still get a surge of awe and respect when I see someone conduct without a score.) The first movement started off on a serene note. As the piece progressed, the forte portions added to the grandeur. The tempo continued to remain slightly slow but was brisk nevertheless. The second movement continued just as elegantly, especially the first few measures which seemed outright gentle after the relatively loud end of the first movement. The grandeur and playfulness returned again in the third and fourth movements, which sounded quite jovial and cheery. The second movement is my most favorite movement of the symphony and I enjoyed it the most and there were no disappointments.

I had one qualm though. The piano portions of the music sometimes seemed too soft and their detail was lost on me. This was also true for the second piece played, Symphony No. 2 in D Major. However, I was generally quite pleased with both the First as well as the Second.

The striking feature of this juxtaposition of Beethoven’s works was the clarity with which one could see how different the two symphonies are. In the First, one sees a conformist Beethoven, composing music that sounds like that of his predecessors, Haydn and Mozart. There is no scherzo, but rather a minuet. In contrast, he really spreads his wings for the Second, with the second movement of the Second Symphony characteristically unlike that of his predecessors but rather distinctly like him. The rendition of this slow second movement was particularly fabulous and I made a mental note to try to attend the orchestra’s performance of the similar Sixth Symphony.

The third and the final piece on the program was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, one of the most popular of his symphonies, perhaps second only to the Ninth in terms of popularity. Its distinctive four note opening is well recognized by many people, to the point of it being somewhat of a cliché.

Right after those initial four notes, I afforded a guess that it was going to be a loud but conservative affair. The sheer number of performers on stage also supported this — the stage was quite packed. The guess turned out to be right. The tempo was slightly on the slower side as had been the norm throughout the performance. The piano portions were not too soft this time, and I was in general quite happy. The rendition did not disappoint me, but I didn’t think it was particularly noteworthy either. To be fair, this was somewhat expected as the Fifth Symphony is quite popular and familiar, and the lack of novelty that I felt only shows this. I must add that in the end it all felt “right” — it ended right about where it should have; nothing felt too fast or too slow or too loud, so I’d say apart from the lack of novelty, it was pretty much perfect.

The performance was very well received with many rounds of applause and shouts of “Bravo!” following its conclusion.