Just like Barbie®, there are a variety of different Beethovens. There's Classical Beethoven. He's young and playful and optimistic. He takes his cues from Haydn and Mozart, following the formal rules of classicism but always infusing them with his own rhythmic punches. There's Brooding Beethoven -- a personal favorite -- he is all agony and angst and internal struggle. There's Reflective, Sentimental Beethoven. He has the wisdom and perspective that comes with age. And then of course, there's Heroic Beethoven. He's the one who wants to start a revolution.
Of course, the best thing about Beethoven's music is that, in any given symphony or concerto, you can find bits of all of these different personalities. Brooding Beethoven pops up unexpectedly in the middle of a piece that was clearly composed by Classical Beethoven, and even Heroic Beethoven gets sentimental.
This weekend the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is showcasing the Beethoven that most of us know best: Dramatic, Heroic Beethoven. The concert opens with the Coriolan Overture, a quick eight minutes of music that starts with big blasts of sound followed by silence -- one of Beethoven's classic dramatic tricks -- before launching into a propulsive whirlwind of themes.
Sometimes orchestras toss off opening overtures without thought, waiting for the heavy symphony scheduled for the second half of the program to really get down to business. But last night Jaap van Zweden and the DSO pulled every ounce of drama out of this overture, giving it the attention it deserved. The result was a sort of micro-symphony that developed quickly and packed a punch.
The main attraction on this week's program is Beethoven's 5th and final piano concerto, the "Emperor." This is quintessential Heroic Beethoven. It too starts with big blows of chords from the orchestra, but this time the piano jumps in to fill the silence. Yefim Bronfman is this weekend's soloist, and it is hard to imagine a better choice for this particular concert. In his black suit, Bronfman matches his instrument: solid, sturdy, heavy and unshakable. He doesn't try to show off with extraneous head-shakes or arm-flairs. In fact, he looks pretty stoic sitting there behind his instrument. All the drama here is in the sound.
Bronfman and van Zweden pulled off a compelling "Emperor" last night. The trick with this piece, as with most Beethoven, is rhythmic energy and drive. Getting an orchestra and pianist in sync can be challenging, but the two seemed to be telling one story last night, and it was an exciting one. During the first movement, they chose a pretty fast pace, but Bronfman never blurred scales or hid mistakes with his pedal. He gave every note its moment with clarity and precision and still managed to stay with the zipping, driving orchestra.
Nobody clapped at the end of the first movement of the concerto last night but everyone must have wanted to. The Thursday night crowd at the DSO is typically a pretty serious one -- they know the "rules" and they follow them. But last night I wished they'd just gotten over themselves for a moment and let the orchestra know how compelling that first movement really was. It wouldn't have interrupted any kind of flow. In fact, the silence that followed the thrilling, dramatic final chords was a stranger, more distracting response than if someone had just started a roaring applause.
Sentimental Beethoven appears during the second movement of the "Emperor" concerto. It's hard to imagine a string section playing the beginning of this piece more beautifully than the DSO's did last night. It was breathtaking, the kind of musical moment that you remember for a long time because it forces you to stop thinking thoughts and just feel feelings. The third movement was everything you want it to be. Again, Bronfman pulled off clarity and a gorgeous tone in the midst of a fast-paced, energetic whirl of sound.
The DSO has showcased so many young virtuosos at the piano this season. It was really nice to see an elder statesman of the instrument play this music. Bronfman is certainly not a flashy, showy pianist, but after years of playing, he has perfected his sound. It never bangs or gets sloppy and it is always precise. And, perhaps most importantly, he really, really knows all the Beethovens.
This weekend's concert finishes with Beethoven's 7th symphony and next weekend the DSO tackles Dramatic Beethoven's biggest hit, the ubiquitous 5th symphony.
Don't forget, too, that as part of the DSO's Beethoven festival, chamber concerts are being held concurrently at the Dallas City Performance Hall. During these concerts all 10 of the composer's violin sonatas are being performed as well as a smattering of other chamber works. Last Saturday, pianist Alessio Bax played a stunningly beautiful, memorable performance of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 10. It was some of the finest music-making I've heard at the piano in a long time. Impressive, too, because Bax had an eventful week ahead of him. He and his wife, pianist Lucille Chung, gave birth to their first baby this week (congrats Lucille and Alessio on a beautiful little girl!). Bax is back in Dallas this Saturday to play the 7th and 9th violin sonatas with Alex Kerr and Nathan Olson. Check the DSO's website for tickets and more information.
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