Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Beethoven smackdown goes to challenger!

You-know-who got a workout this weekend.

You probably didn't notice, but something of a watershed occurred last weekend - and no, I don't mean the Red Sox winning the pennant; I'm talking about something far more important. In a curious, but perhaps fated, coincidence, two of the city's major music organizations - the BSO and the Handel and Haydn Society - found themselves playing the same piece of music at the same time: Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. It was an important face-off, because many felt it might represent something of a turning point in a polite, but ongoing musical "war" over whether Beethoven is better suited to period or modern instruments. The BSO and other symphonies have long since abandoned Baroque music to the early music movement, and practically ceded Haydn; but Mozart and Beethoven remain sticking points, for financial as well as artistic reasons: if the consensus developed that these two audience draws were best played on period instruments, the BSO would suddenly find the cultural earth moving beneath its feet.

So any BSO spies at Handel and Haydn last weekend would have been dismayed to find (as I think anyone who caught both concerts would have to admit), that H&H left the BSO in the dust. The H&H event was, to be fair, the confluence of a "perfect storm" of musical interest: Grant Llewellyn (at left) who had already demonstrated a passionate mastery of Beethoven in his versions of the First and Second last year, had returned to conduct; the Society had also engaged young South African pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, a brilliant performer, and had even procured a stunningly beautiful fortepiano (in both sound and tone) built in period style by R. J. Regier after Viennese models. (You can see and read about this exquisite instrument here.)

The BSO's forces, of course, were redoubtable, too. The famous Christoph von Dohnänyi, often a favorite of mine, took the baton at Symphony Hall, with the rising young German pianist Lars Vogt (left) at the Steinway. But just moments into the concert, it was evident that the concert was going to be business-as-usual for the BSO. The orchestra sounded far more focused and confident than it had the week before, under Robert Spano; that much I expected. I thought, however, that Dohnänyi, or Vogt, might find some new spark in the Third, especially given the implicit challenge from H&H; but I thought wrong. Vogt crafted a supple, even graceful reading, often with little rushes of plush feeling, while Dohnänyi supplied steady and subtle back-up, but the overall impression was still not so much of musical statement as brand projection: this was a refined version of RCA Victor Beethoven, power music for the power elite.

In contrast, H&H crafted from the same raw material an exciting musical voyage. Bezuidenhout proved a fearless and almost willful performer, exploring the limits of his instrument with a passion, improvising in the cadenza with poetic intelligence, and throwing to the winds any academic concerns about consistent "period" tempo (always a thorn in the early music garden). Rarely have I seen a pianist hold his audience's attention captive - but if Bezuidenhout's fingers hadn't been on the keys, I'd say he had Symphony Hall in the palm of his hand.

His eloquence might have been lost on a lesser instrument, but the Regier fortepiano proved as spectacular as its player. While the sound texture of the period orchestra is by now a fixture on the local scene, the fortepiano is still something of a shock: its reedier tone can sound almost tinny at first blush. The ear unconsciously adjusts to its new aural context, however, and soon unexpected musical vistas emerge. Unlike modern pianos, which are designed to sound much the same up and down their keyboards, fortepianos seem to sport different colors in almost every octave. In particular, the lower reaches of the keyboard are all but revelatory - the fuzzy thud of the average Steinway has here been replaced by a dark forest of different timbres, through which Bezuidenhout darted with ferocious attack. Indeed, when accompanied by the subtly different tones and colors of the period string orchestra, the result was a hypnotic atmosphere of near-counterpoint.

Bezuidenhout wows the crowd on the fortepiano. (Photo by Michael J. Lutch.)

The rest of the concert was almost as thrilling. While over at the BSO, Dohnänyi wrapped the evening with a standard-issue version of the Fifth (rather predictably, the only thing unusual about it was that it was louder than it had to be - the BSO had doubled up on its players), Llewellyn, after being led willingly by Bezuidenhout through the concerto, asserted himself in a spirited rendition of the Seventh. Indeed, I've never understood Wagner's famous description of it as "the apotheosis of dance" till now - under Llewellyn, Handel and Haydn pushed the finale past frenzy and into something like orgasm.

Of course the final accolades have to go to the H&H players themselves, who always exhibit a higher level of musical attention and intelligence than the BSO, if you ask me. The BSO, needless to say, is superb, and each of its players is a superstar; but once you get past the rah-rah, they're-our-musical-Red-Sox aspect of the orchestra, its superbiness is somehow a little dull, and its players sometimes look like an army of idiot savants - waiting patiently for their next cue, but staring at the soloist with marked disinterest. At H&H, meanwhile, the orchestra was clearly riveted by Bezuidenhout - their response was like a mini-drama within the larger one unfolding in the hall. They, like everyone in the audience, knew a home run when they saw one.

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