Benjamin Zander is known for brisk, bracing Beethoven. The Boston Philharmonic conductor shocked Boston audiences in 1973 by performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 at the composer’s indicated tempo–much faster than the broad tempos favored at the time. He has since advocated for comparatively quick tempos on both historical and musical grounds. Zander and the Philharmonic unleashed a fleet yet forceful all-Beethoven program Thursday night at the Sanders Theatre.
A surging Coriolan Overture didn’t leave much room to admire timbral or dynamic contrasts. This dark, tragic work depicts the titular Roman general’s wounded pride, fierce anger, and desire for vengeance, and the Philharmonic’s momentum and percussive attacks served the drama of the piece. Throughout the evening, these agile readings emphasized Beethoven’s Classical roots, in this case the zippy strings occasionally recalling an Italian sinfonia.
Pianist Robert Levin’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat also downplayed the image of Beethoven as a proto-Romantic bound by contemporary conventions. The Fifth Concerto is Beethoven’s final and perhaps grandest piano concerto. Levin is known for playing period instruments with historically informed practice and ample improvisation.
Yet despite playing a grand piano in a work explicitly barred from improvisation by Beethoven himself, Levin’s clean attack and rhetorically shaped phrasing made the long first movement’s ornate passages speak as more than showpieces. The second movement unfolded like an improvised ballad, Levin’s playful interaction with the orchestra and lucid textures showing Beethoven’s debt to Mozart. The Rondo closed the concerto with a solid but subtle beat, and Levin switched from whirlwind to waltz with utter naturalness.
Exciting as the overture and concerto may have been, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony had the air of a main event. It is not only a history-making composition, and perhaps the best-known piece of classical music, but a work with special significance in Zander’s career and musical philosophy.
From the outset, with the famous opening four-note theme, Zander’s touch carved out something entirely individual yet inevitably familiar given the material. Hammering out the four-note phrase with barely a pause, as Zander directs it on his recording, maintains the theme’s immediacy while adding a fresh sense of tension to this iconic, and often overly milked, motif.
Similarly driving moments throughout the first movement Allegro con Brio reinforced key moments without cliche extremes or ponderous details. Dialogs between strings and winds were especially poignant. Zander’s tempo was perhaps most effective in the second movement Andante, making Beethoven’s rhythmic melody and cresting accompaniments sound graceful but still reflective. The Boston Philharmonic brass were especially impressive in this movement.
The “ghostly” third movement Scherzo proceeded as a quick march, which maintained the forward arch of the symphony and brought out the elegance of Beethoven’s writing. The Allegro trio section turned into a virtuoso display, especially the basses firing into the fugue. Despite some loss of contrapuntal clarity, it made for a thrilling massed effect, including hushed exchanges between the sections.
The whisper of Zander and the Boston Philharmonic can be as exciting as their roar–exemplified in the segue from the diminuendo close of the third movement into the triumphant conclusion. This was the Boston Philharmonic at their biggest and most balanced, from timpanis down to piccolo. A packed house responded with a five-minute standing ovation, including whistles for each of the sections and multiple curtain calls for Zander.
Click here to listen to Coriolan Overture.
Click here to listen to Beethoven Symphony no. 5.