There’s nothing worse than a complacent performance of a Beethoven symphony. Being such a staple of the orchestral repertoire, Beethoven is all too easily performed on auto-pilot. Some conductors, however, have made it their mission to find fresh approaches to the great composer, like David Zinman, the music director of the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich, who led the New York Philharmonic’s Modern Beethoven festival at Avery Fisher Hall this month. Zinman believes there is no right or wrong way to perform Beethoven – arguments over the use of period instruments or vibrato matter little – only that it must grip and engage the audience. This is surely the basic principle of any exercise in live music-making.
The New York Philharmonic has a long history with Beethoven; it performed the Fifth Symphony at its first-ever concert in 1842. The Modern Beethoven festival – each concert consisting of two Beethoven symphonies and a 20th century piece – concluded last week with the performance of the first and third symphonies. The First Symphony, completed in 1800, was far from radical. Warm and playful and classical at its core, it shows Beethoven paying homage to his predecessors while also searching for his own voice. Zinman – who has pored over early editions of Beethoven’s full scores and correspondence with publishers – and a slight ensemble of Philharmonic players brought out the symphony’s Mozart-like qualities in a light and fast-paced account. In the opening movement, there were some tentative solo lines from the brass and woodwind, but the threads came together in the Menuetto, with its punchy, frolicking theme, and the Finale was vibrant.
If you compare Beethoven’s First Symphony to his landmark Ninth Symphony, which premiered 24 years later in 1824, the difference is clear. Over two decades, Beethoven transformed the entire symphonic genre, and his Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” originally intended as a tribute to Napoleon, was a turning point. The “Eroica” marks the arrival of Beethoven’s “middle period” of grand works of emotional depth. At 50 minutes long, it was the longest symphony ever to be written when it was unveiled. With the Philharmonic stretched to its full size on stage, Zinman began the performance promptly upon stepping onto the podium. The opening movement, the Allegro con brio, was an invigorating fabric of sound from the very beginning, and the supple strings accented the romantic swells and dynamic contrasts. The funeral march was beautifully dark and rich, and the Scherzo playful. The Philharmonic maintained its energy until the end of the grand and indeed heroic Finale, an astounding example of theme and variation and melodic counterpoint.
Wedged between the two Beethovens was the work of a lesser-known German composer, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who composed his Concerto funébre for solo violin and string orchestra in the fall of 1939. Hartmann lamented the rise of the Nazis but stayed in Germany during the war, avoiding conscription into the army and helping endangered people escape to safer ground. He made political statements through his compositions by referencing Russian workers’ songs and Jewish chants, but he kept his work safely under wraps in his homeland and sent it abroad for performance, in an act of defiance. The concerto premiered in 1940 in Switzerland but has not been performed by the Philharmonic until this month. And who better to premiere it than violinist Gil Shaham, who has been studiously exploring and performing the violin concertos of the 1930s. Reflecting the early war years, the work is mostly mournful, and Shaham played the melodic solo line in a rich, warm tone, sometimes swaying softly and wearing a small, enigmatic smile. Occasionally the concerto descends into panic, with high-pitched, screeching strings (perhaps Bernard Herrmann, who composed the score for Hitchcock’s Psycho decades later, got ideas from Hartmann). Shaham switched moods effortlessly and handled the frenzied runs skillfully. He showed great finesse and dynamic control at all times, and the performance clearly left New York audiences with a newfound appreciation of an innovative 20th century composer.