After baton change, BSO launches Beethoven cycle
The BSO’s complete Beethoven cycle finally pulled out of port last night, albeit without its anticipated captain. Music director James Levine is scheduled to return midcycle. In the meantime, the popular guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos is on the podium this week leading the First, Second, and Fifth Symphonies.
It was time to set aside big-picture discussions about the best ways to program Beethoven and take these current performances for what they are: an intensive survey of symphonic masterpieces by a composer who has, quite literally, been with the BSO from its very first notes. In Symphony Hall, Beethoven’s name reigns triumphant on the proscenium. But a note from Brian Bell in an extensively annotated program book also reminds us that Beethoven’s music was played at the first BSO performance in 1881. There was even a statue of the composer that kept lofty watch from the stage.
Last night’s program began, naturally enough, at the beginning. Beethoven wrote his first symphony around 1800 and you can feel the weight of history (and Haydn) on his shoulders. Tradition is not so much overturned but rather nudged in intriguing directions, especially in his third movement (a scherzo in all but name) full of unusual harmonic excursions. The Second Symphony has the feel of a composer starting to make a genre his own, though still without the radical break represented by the mighty “Eroica.’’ The Fifth, well, you know how that one goes.
Frühbeck led lucid performances of the first two symphonies, focused on the music at hand without searching for hints of the revolutionary composer to come. Conducting from memory the entire night, he seemed to know exactly what he wanted at every moment. There was some beautifully limpid woodwind playing and some mellifluous phrasing in the strings, even if one could quibble about various tempo choices. Frühbeck’s account of the Fifth had enough sonic heft and dramatic flair to electrify the large crowd in Symphony Hall. The hard-working orchestra gave him everything he asked for, and then some.
The cycle continues next week with BSO assistant conductor Julian Kuerti leading its next installment. In the meantime, the orchestra has also just launched a new edition of its online “Classical Companion,’’ allowing you to brush up your Beethoven without leaving home.