In Catherine Drinker Bowen’s book “Friends And Fiddlers”, there’s line that more or less accurately sums up my thoughts on Beethoven. Drinker, a talented amateur violinist in her own right, describes an afternoon filled with some difficult Beethoven – music trying enough to delay the fiddlers’ post-Beethoven meal. If memory serves (and it may not as I’ve not read the book in some time and my only copy is long since gone – a gift to a close friend many years ago) Drinker’s mother doesn’t mind waiting because, as she says, “Even bad Beethoven is worth many times hot soup.”
Needless to say that with or without the soup, this evening’s Beethoven was very very good. With three pieces on the program, one from Beethoven’s early period (the Piano Concerto No 1 from 1797) and two from his middle period (the “Pastoral” Symphony from 1808 and the Leonore Overture No 3 from 1806) the concert was a joy.
I was, however, pleasantly surprised at the order of pieces. There’s a cliche that classical concerts tend to go this way; Overture, Concerto, drinks at intermission (or perhaps a visit to the loo), and then a Symphony. This concert had it exactly backwards. We started with the Pastoral and ended with the Leonore. Anything that upends a cliche is a good thing.
One of the many interesting things to remember about the Pastoral – it was premiered on the same day (December 22, 1808) as his Fifth symphony. It was reportedly a bad night (a 4 hour long performance with an ill-prepared set of musicians in an unheated theatre in ice cold weather) for Beethoven. There was only one rehearsal for the whole program (which included the 4th Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy) and the performance suffered. It’s also one of the few pieces with any elements of “program music” found in Beethoven.
So what’s “program music”? Musicologists usually set it apart from what they call “absolute music.” The Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz, for example, is “program music” as it tells a story outside of itself. The Beethoven 5th, on the other hand, is “absolute music” as whatever “story” it tells, it tells about itself. There are bird calls in the Pastoral and a thunderstorm – ergo “program music” though Beethoven himself said it was more an “more an expression of feeling than painting.”
A different form of music that tells a story is an operatic overture. The duality is, perhaps, another cliche. Some, like the overture to Verdi’s “La forza del destino” actively quotes the music of the opera it announces. Others, like the overture to Mozart’s “La nozze di figaro” sets the mood of the opera with nary a quotation from its music. The Leonore no 3, mixes those two:
For an opera overture, in fact, the very perfection of the Leonore No. 3 might be regarded as a flaw. It is so comprehensive and self-sufficient that it seems to constitute a complete drama in its own right, rather than prepare the listener for one to be enacted on the stage. As a symphonic poem–its true category–it does not attempt to encapsulate the various episodes of the drama, or even to represent all the key characters. The heroine whose name the piece bears does not make even the briefest appearance, the only material from the opera itself being the theme of Florestan’s aria from the opening of Act II and the offstage fanfares that signal the arrival of the Minister of Justice. In terms of mood, atmosphere and spirit, though, this music sums up splendidly the dramatic sequence conveying oppression, resolve, hope, and joyous deliverance. It is the very essence, not only of the opera but of the heroic gesture in music we associate with Beethoven’s name.
Leave it to Beethoven to upend another cliche.
The Piano Concerto was more than ably played by Lars Vogt. While Mark Kanny of the Trib said Vogt played convincingly, he noted some tempo concerns, though he ended by saying the performance was stronger than Vogt’s debut. Andy Druckenbrod, while calling Vogt a “spectacular” pianist, took felt that his reading didn’t “fit the reality of the composer.” Myself, I thought it was certainly a good performance but I was surprised that it got a standing ovation on Saturday night when far more deserving performance of the Pastoral didn’t (at least not where I was sitting).
At the end of the concert I was left with the end of a sonnet by Edna St Vincent Millay:
This moment is the best the world can give:
The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.
Reject me not, sweet sounds; oh, let me live,
Till Doom espy my towers and scatter them,
A city spell-bound under the aging sun.
Music my rampart, and my only one.