The New York Philharmonic's mini-Beethoven Festival this season consisted of a series of three programs conducted by David Zinman, whose recording Beethoven Symphony cycle with his Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra is widely regarded as having set a new standard for integrating early music performance practice insights with the power and color of a modern orchestra. Zinman's revelatory approach was fully on view in the opening work of Saturday nights performance of the third program, Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21.
Although Zinman reduced the string section, allowing the winds to assume more prominence, encouraged the brasses to play out strongly, and the tympanist to give things a real good whack from time to time, the most evident sign of the early music approach was in the strings, who played with a forcefullness of articulation and transparency of texture that seems a bit removed from the traditional (i.e., late 19th through mid-20th century) approach to Beethoven. The results were telling. This was actually a big scale but brisk performance that exalted the symphony in its importance. While one tends to think of this symphony as "early" Beethoven, it is well to consider that the composer was in his 30th year when he wrote it, having already composed a considerable quantity of piano music, chamber music (including several string quartets), and the first two piano concerti. So although he was still in the process of finding his original compositional voice, by the time he wrote this symphony he was pretty well along. It is a big opening statement for the historic cycle of nine symphonies, and that's how it came across here.
Violinist Gil Shaham is a particular Philharmonic favorite, not least for his ability to make the unfamiliar seem familiar with his passionate advocacy. I remember many fine concerto performances with the orchestra, but the one that resounds most strongly was his performance of Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2 with Pierre Boulez on the podium. That was the performance that really "sold" me on the Bartok. Last night, Shaham had the opportunity to do the same for Karl Amadeus Hartman's Concerto funebre for Violin and String Orchestra (1939, rev. 1959). I have some recordings of this but it has never really overwhelmed me. It did last night. This piece, in accord with its title, is largely somber, and angry when it's not, so it is not a piece to ingratiate. I suspect that repeated hearing would build respect and understanding, but on a virtual first-hearing, there was much to engage the listener – not least the gorgeous harmonies and textures produced by the string orchestra. But it was, as noted above, Mr. Shaham's habaitual enthusiastic advocacy for the piece that carried the day. Even when he is not playing, he appears so visually engaged and consumed by the music that he brings the audience along for the emotional ride. I think the audience identifies with him and lives the music through him in a special way. He's always a welcome guest.
After intermission, Zinman and a more normal-sized orchestra tackled the revolutionary Beethoven Symphony No. 3, Sinfonia Eroica, written in 1802-04. This is generally accounted the piece in which Beethoven fulfilled his early promise by writing something so new, and on such a grand scale, as to astound his earlier listeners and fire the opening shot in the romantic movement — especially in the development section of the long first movement and all of the second movement Funeral March.
But having attended the performance of Symphony No. 2 by Zinman and the Philharmonic two weeks ago, it seems to me the it is possible to overstate the unprecedented nature of the Eroica. With all repeats played and the exuberant style of performance, Zinman's #2 strongly foreshadows much that is distinctive about #3. I thought that last night's performance of #3, while excellent on all counts, was not quite so revelatory as the others I've heard in this series (#1, #2, #7 – unfortunately I missed last week's installment of #4 and #8). Perhaps that's because I've already heard this symphony performed by Osmo Vanska with the Minnesota Orchestra, and Vanska's approach is in many respects similar to Zinman. Or perhaps it's because the range of interpretive styles in this symphony is so broad that many of the things Zinman does with it, despite departing from what may be argued to be "mainstream" interpretation, just do not sound that radical. This is not to take anything away from last night's performance, which was excellent on all counts, but just to say that it came across as an excellent mainstream interpretation, rather than the more unusual departures from the norm heard in the other symphonies in this series.
It's a pity Zinman didn't get another week to give us #6 and #9! But I hope he will be a return visitor, since the orchestra plays very well for him and he is an excellent leader. (Did I forget to mention his work in the Hartman concerto? Consider it mentioned: he had the orchestra on the edge of their seats and secured a faultless rendition of a totally unfamiliar work – this was the NYP premiere of the piece.)
Farewell David Zinman…. with hopes to hear from you again soon.