BSO, soloists strike right tone
All-Beethoven concert is the perfect crowd-pleaser to show Levine's mastery
Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.
Beethoven is not a hard sell for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Symphony Hall was packed Thursday night for James Levine's all-Beethoven program, which is part of his ongoing Beethoven/Schoenberg project.
Levine programmed two Beethoven symphonies, the Second and the Seventh, and the Triple Concerto for violin, cello, and piano, all carefully chosen to display parallels to the music of Arnold Schoenberg. The finale of the Second, for example, may have been the wildest symphonic movement anyone had composed up to that time (1802). The Triple Concerto is the only piece for that combination of soloists in the standard repertoire; Schoenberg adapted a concerto grosso of Handel into a concerto for the equally remarkable combination of string quartet and orchestra. The Seventh is all dance energy -- something that could be said of Schoenberg's Suite for solo piano.
Most BSO performances of the Triple Concerto in the last 25 years have featured established piano trios. Levine's choice was three solo virtuosi with major chamber-music credentials -- pianist Jonathan Biss, violinist Miriam Fried, and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum. Fried and Biss are mother and son, and Kirshbaum played like one of the family, which is saying something -- Biss's grandmother and Fried's mother-in-law was the legendary Russian cellist Raya Garbousova.
This is a spacious piece, designed to give all three soloists equal opportunity to develop the melodic material and to display the characteristics of all three instruments and the personalities of the players; it also springs surprises -- a polonaise erupts in the middle of the finale. Fried offered fire, elegance, and gleaming sound, although in the first movement she sometimes played with more attack than tone. Kirshbaum, in a notoriously difficult part, displayed a singing soulfulness. Biss's piano stuttered briefly in the first movement, but he played everything else with authority, imagination, and brio.
The two Beethoven Symphonies offered a demonstration of the improvement Levine has wrought in the orchestra. The musicians played with style, balance, energy, and finesse over a newly expanded dynamic range. The Seventh represented some kind of pinnacle of execution, and it was full of wonderful details -- a three-note passage in the flute illuminated a phrase like a ray of sunshine. Levine maintained the same tempo in the trio of the Scherzo that he had begun with, while completely changing the musical characterization. The furious, disciplined speed and charging rhythm of the finale excited even the conductor, who rose from his chair three times. And when it was over, the entire audience was out of its seats, on its feet, and howling.