Saturday, March 27, 2010

Beethoven's 5th

From March 25 to March 28 we are at Alice Tully Hall for four days straight to hear all of the Beethoven Symphonies played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Ivan Fisher. The "hook," of this concert series, so to speak, is that the musicians play these symphonies on period instruments. Apparently, this remains a rather controversial approach, not attempted by most major orchestras. As the name of this guest orchestra suggests, its very reason for existing is to bring music on period instruments to great concert halls.

We have now heard Beethoven's 2nd and 3rd in the premier concert, and then last night the 1st, 8th, and 5th. The audience has received these performances with tremendous enthusiasm. For me, it wasn't until we got to the 5th last night that I woke up to what a powerful experience this is. Of course, they have all been great, but I didn't feel the need to rise up out of my chair and shout "Bravo!" until I had witnessed their version of the 5th.

The 5th was to be played after the intermission of the 2nd concert, and I was immediately intrigued when stagehands dragged three music stands onto the stage, two at the same height and one somewhat lower and just left them there off to the side in a neat, slightly diagonal row. When the symphony began with its characteristic Da, da, da, daaaah! Da, da, da, doooo! those music stands seemed like superfluous ornaments - no human stood behind them.

Right from the beginning of the 5th, I was taken with the fantastic sound made by those old French horns (that seem need to be emptied of saliva even more often than contemporary ones) and by the flutes and clarinets made out of wood. There was something rawer, more jarring about the sound made by this orchestra - less perfect but more magnetic and tension-filled. Just as an aside, we have been listening to the suites for unaccompanied cello by Bach that have been recorded by many musicians, including Yo-Yo Ma and Pablo Casals. Now I love Yo-Yo Ma, but his version of the suites is bit too tidy at times, too letter perfect, whereas Casals plays these suites with such passion and abandon, you feel there might be some missed notes but the effect is emotionally overwhelming. Roughly, the same thing with this orchestra. The period instruments are strained to the limit at times, resulting in occasional squeaks or squawks, but the result in the end has an edge and a verve that is irresistible.

Cut to the music stands, still without human accompaniment. As the symphony moves into its triumphant finale, two men and one women take their places at these stands, holding these long period trombones. Without hesitation, they lift these horns to their lips and began to sing out the last parts of the 5th symphony. At the same time, the conductor is rousing the entire orchestra to this incomparable, completely uninhibited conclusion. I could feel the excitement growing inside me, and when it was over, I couldn't wait to show my appreciation. What a magnificent performance of one of the greatest of all musical compositions.

Just as a final note, you might say that the 5th Symphony, when it is played with such brilliance, is so superb that it cannot be topped. Only one person was capable of something greater. And, of course, that person was Beethoven himself.

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