Beethoven takes the (whole) stage at BSO
Week 7: All-Beethoven Concert
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 in B-flat, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor
Performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Andris Nelsons
Boston Symphony Hall
BSO continues its 2018-19 season under the fantastic dramatism of director Andris Nelsons, with the fantastic dramatism of — cue dun-dun-dun-DUN… Beethoven! This all-Beethoven concert featured Beethoven’s 4th and 5th symphonies, an interesting juxtaposition of the famed composer’s least-played symphony as well as his most-played symphony. Beethoven enjoyed contrasting large, heroic themes with softer, more lighthearted motifs — both on a macroscopic scale, as between adjacent symphony numbers, and on a microscopic scale, as between phrases and themes within individual movements. The 4th is one of the happier symphonies, while the 5th is more dramatic, evident in its opening notes.
Characteristic of many of Beethoven’s symphonies, the 4th opens in minor, with a mysterious tip-toeing melody of lowstrings shadowed by brass. It eventually shifts to a grand celebration in a major key, reminiscent of a vibrant afternoon on the streets of Vienna or some other grand European city. Strings and timpani mark a strong rhythmic beat, while occasionally, strings and woodwinds exchange a warbling 5-note motif.
The second movement brings together a lazy but lighthearted pattern of short-long, long and short-long, short-long rhythms juxtaposed with a waltz of vibrant strings and the echo of resounding brass. The woodwind melodies flap around like a happy bird about the heads of picnickers. I give kudos to the clarinet solos for executing their melodies flawlessly — they really make the movement the winsome piece it is.
The third movement begins with fanfare and arpeggios that drive the piece forward at an exuberant pace. The arpeggios permeate the rest of the movement in alternating moods of cheeriness and dramatism. The final movement concludes the symphony grandly, boasting a whirlwind of strings and melodic winds interposed with fanfare from the whole symphony. At points the speedy strings were not as crisp as would be ideal, but the orchestra did a fantastic job nonetheless, bringing out the dramatic crescendos and diminuendos as wells as the sharp changes in dynamics that pervade the entire movement.
It was good that the orchestra began with the 4th symphony and concluded with the 5th, because if they began with the 5th, I may not have had enough energy to appreciate the 4th. After the unmistakable opening of Beethoven’s 5th, the dun-dun-dun-DUN motif continues through the rest of the movement. A more lighthearted motif occasionally breaks through, with strings and winds exchanging the melodic small talk of 8-note phrases, with the lower strings adding dramatic comments in the background. The small talk and all culminate in heroic brass- and timpani-dominated splendor, with the motif pervading throughout.
The second movement continues the drama with a grand, marching rhythm interspersed with the conversation between sweet-sounding winds and full-bodied strings. And of course, it wouldn’t be good Beethoven without some good drama, and sure enough drama demands its fair share in this movement in the form of an emphatic, on-the-beat rhythm the entire movement.
The 5th closes with a recurrence of the dun-dun-dun-DUN motif in a more consistent yet still dramatic form, alternating with a lighthearted race of strings executed quite well by the BSO performers. There is still some time for the melody to tiptoe around mysteriously and march around grandly before it concludes with an effusive flourish of final notes (Dun! Dun! Da-dun! DUN! DUN!) for an extra-grand finale.
All in all, I never get tired of Beethoven’s dramatic flair, and BSO pulled off quite a stellar performance of the master’s work.