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All-Beethoven Night (Lupu, von Dohnányi, New York Philharmonic)

2 February 2013

Beethoven: Overture: Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op.43
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.1 in C Major, Op.15
Beethoven: Symphony No.5 in C Minor, Op.67

Radu Lupu (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor)

1 February 2013
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York

It seems you can’t avoid Beethoven in New York this week. Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra are essaying the complete symphonies at Carnegie Hall, and on their night off (and ours!) there was yet more Beethoven to be had from the New York Philharmonic.*

What was most fascinating about this concert – aside from hearing the purer, more sculpted, and tamer tone of a less ad hoc orchestra – was the reminder that the classic, non-HIP style of Beethoven performance remains a broad church indeed. Barenboim’s three-quarters-Furtwängler-one-quarter-Klemperer way with this music risks inconsistency and failure with the payoff of the highest metaphysical insights (as the first and second concerts in his WEDO cycle demonstrated). But here Dohnányi and the NYP showed another side of Beethoven, a less visionary and less burdened side that was in its own way more modestly humane and just as necessary. Barenboim’s Fifth pressed me back into my seat, made me fear and hope, constricted my chest with tension even in the final movement. Dohnányi, on the other hand, had me smiling with his understanding and sweet temper.

I know which I ultimately prefer – especially as I think Beethoven is played far too often and loses some of its power – but the important point is that the Fifths of Barenboim and Dohnányi both mattered in some way.

The difference in style was evident from the similar first chords of Dohnányi’s Prometheus overture and Barenboim’s First symphony: crystal clear in the former, straight down the line, and pianistically rolled in the latter. The Prometheus began dangerously slowly, but with an eminently sane transition to the quick section Dohnányi’s safe – though hardly dull – hands took over. While I might have appreciated a little more contrapuntal vigour from the NYP’s strings, the way in which Dohnányi simply let this music dance was enthralling.

The crowds were here for Radu Lupu. After the bewitching haze of his recent Carnegie recital (which I reviewed here), the charm and delicacy of this Beethoven surprised me. Of course that tone of which I rhapsodised the other day was still there, but now it was married to detached phrases within long lines that seemed fully appropriate to this most Mozartean of Beethoven’s concertos. Lupu was structurally adept, aping and foreshadowing orchestral lines and delivering scales and progressions at once with rigour and spontaneity. His minute rubato, floated phrases, offbeat accents, bubbly arpeggios, and even his wit constantly surprised. He took the shorter of the first-movement cadenzas with a demure but knowing humour, proportioning it beautifully.

The Largo rolled gently, swooning and sung like birdsong, but Lupu found depth, power, and troubles in this movement’s louder passages. Now one started to hear Beethoven pushing past Mozart in ways the first movement had not, looking forward in breadth of tone and in insistence. The impish glee of the finale could only have come from Beethoven. Some of Lupu’s repeated lines might have been clearer, but no matter, for their individual shaping  was treat enough as Lupu uncrossed his arms, leant forward, and unfurled, coaxed another sighing phrase from his Steinway. Serenity met cheek through an eye for detail so intelligent it had me chuckling along. And in partnership with Dohnányi the concerto as a whole sparkled. This was the work of two elder statesmen – who would realise Dohnányi is 83? – who knew exactly what both wanted to achieve, and delivered in chamber-like fashion with smiles passed between. There were few fireworks from Dohnányi, but they were hardly needed with such structural clarity and attention to dialogue.

Those traits enlivened the Fifth too. This was not the transcendent tone poem of Barenboim and WEDO the other night, but it was warm, generous, and endearing. There was barely a fermata to be found in the opening movement, taken at a brisk schnell without letting up for the second subject. It didn’t have the pure drama of Barenboim’s account, but through economy of gesture it built inexorably. One saw the difference between WEDO and the NYP so easily, the NYP’s sound far more cultivated but created solely from the middle of the bow, contrapuntal lines noted but far from dug into. The second movement was warm but not cosseting, amiably and pleasantly done with soloists secure. It was lovely, but again one noticed the difference in counterpoint, the first violins dominating here. There was a precise gruffness from the cellos and intricacy from the strings and well-blended winds in the scherzo, but the joy of the final movement came as something of a shock. Rhythmically Dohnányi was so alert, smiling his way through this movement’s travels.

This was a fine Fifth, and had I not heard Barenboim two nights prior I’m sure I would have found it much more powerful. It still had me smiling all the way home. But we come to concerts with ears that remember, and I couldn’t help but take this performance on comparative terms.

* Obviously, Barenboim isn’t actually having the night off: he partook in three hours of events at Columbia, including a conversation about Edward Said and a concert of Boulez and Schubert’s Trout Quintet. As you do, if you’re Daniel Barenboim.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 2 February 2013 9:25 pm

    I am always in awe of how quickly you post a well-written and insightful review after a performance!

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