Beethoven Night at the Bach Festival

Weil - Eroica - 7-18-09Bruno Weil, Conductor

It was “Beethoven” night at the Carmel Bach Festival last night at 8 pm as Maestro Bruno Weil led the Festival Orchestra through two great Beethoven masterpieces — The “Eroica” Symphony and the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major with soloist David Breitman. Actually, the evening began at 6:45 pm down in Carpenter Hall as David Gordon greeted a capacity crowd to speak about the works to be heard during the evening’s concert. Had Mr. Gordon been giving a lecture on a subject as banal as “Bubblegum and Teenage Angst,” a large audience would still have magically materialized, because the word has gotten around that Mr. Gordon can speak anywhere, at any time, on any subject and manage to mesmerize his audience with his fresh, unique perspective that brings both enlightenment and humor to any subject to which he turns his attention.

Although we arrived for his lecture at precisely its scheduled beginning time of 6:45 pm, we were astonished to find there was standing room only, since a capacity crowd was already seated (in comfortable chairs we secretly coveted) while we had to lean up against the back wall with about 50 other standees. The size of this audience was remarkable, for approximately one fifth of the audience attending the evening’s concert was at this lecture eagerly hanging on Mr. Gordon’s every word. He directed our attention away from the oft-told story of Beethoven angrily scratching out the dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte on the first page of the score to his Third Symphony, and instead recreated for us the historical background of his times and his position at a musical crossroad, aware that he was striking out in new directions with his Third Symphony and his Fourth Concerto. This was happening while he was struggling with the increasing loss of hearing (and tinnitus) that disturbed and worried him so greatly. Mr. Gordon described a contemporary eyewitness account of a concert devoted to several of Beethoven’s major works that lasted from 6 pm to 10 pm, and totally exhausted the audience (and the eyewitness leaving us the account). Beethoven not only had a grandiose vision of where he might take us on musical journeys, but his prestige was such that he was able to command extraordinary resources — in one of his concerts the orchestra, in addition to the usual complement of woodwinds and brasses, consisted of 18 first violins, 18 second violins, 14 violas, 12 cellos and 7 basses. No question about it, Beethoven thought “big!”

Breitman - Beethoven 4th 7-18-09Pianist David Breitman

The concert began with a performance of the Fourth Concerto with David Breitman as soloist. The opening chord of the first movement is trickier than it looks. Rudolf Serkin used to agonize for heart-stopping, excruciatingly long seconds as he placed his hands carefully over the keys, angled the fifth finger of his right hand ever so carefully and stiffly in an attempt to bring out the top note of the chord with a beautiful cantabile, and strained to make sure all the notes went down precisely at the same moment — all the while holding his breath like a marksman about to fire at a distant target. Well, there was none of this agonizing for Mr. Breitman. He simply arpeggiated the chord and rolled his way to a beautiful top note. Hmm! I wonder why we hadn’t thought of that before. Perhaps there is more to the scholarship concerning 18th and 19th century performance practice than we had originally believed.

Pianistically there was much to admire in Mr. Breitman’s playing. Everything was neat and precise, his scales and passages were beautifully articulated, there was some lovely phrasing in the slow movement, and he generated much spirited playing in the final movement. But, there was also something missing — the spiritual quality where everything develops inevitably from the heart and soul of the music itself.  Because of this, it was difficult to become involved in his playing, and I had the feeling we were always waiting for something to happen.

After intermission, Maestro Weill returned to the stage and launched the Festival Orchestra into a robust account of the “Eroica” symphony. This is a work that always makes a powerful effect, and so it did on this occasion. The orchestra sounded excellent, and we heard some fine solos from members of the orchestra.

(This concert will be repeated on July 25.)

Archived in these categories: Carmel Bach Festival, Classical Era, Concerto, Orchestral, Piano.
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