Friday, March 13, 2020

Beethoven & Schubert: Compare, Contrast at Long Beach

l: Beethoven in 1804 or 1805, oil painting by Joseph Willibrord Mähler;
r: Schubert in 1827, sketched by Friedrich Lieder.


Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center

Eckart Preu.
Though LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu was at pains to point out in his introductory talk for the orchestra’s March concert that Beethoven and Schubert were highly contrasted both in personality and their social interactions, the former’s sole violin concerto and the latter’s final completed symphony have one important thing in common. Each opens in a highly original and distinctive way, and as the performances showed, how these openings are handled influences fundamentally the way the music proceeds thereafter.

Take the famous drum taps that begin Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major Op. 61; they are quarter-notes (4/4 time), played piano at the tempo marking Allegro, ma non troppo (there is no metronome indication). There’s a tendency sometimes to pay more attention to the “ma non troppo” than the “Allegro,” and sometimes to quieten further the timpani, presumably in attempts to add a sense of profundity, or mystery, or epic breadth. But so pervasive is that rhythm in this movement that unless some crunching gear changes are brought in later, what is already a very long movement starts to feel interminable.

The first page of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in the composer's manuscript. The four opening
timpani beats are just discernible half-way down the left-hand system.

Stefan Jackiw.
In this performance, happily, Maestro Preu from the outset had no truck with that. The timpani beats were quiet, but crisp, and launched an orchestral exposition that was full of direction and purpose. Certainly there was the sense of a long journey getting under way, but not one whose end was unclear. In the pre-concert talk Preu had been joined by Stefan Jackiw, the soloist (their first collaboration as conductor and soloist had been all of 15 years ago), who said that the great challenge in this concerto was to balance its tendency to explore with the need to stay focused on that goal.

Even more happily, all concerned delivered on this aim. Following the powerfully propulsive orchestral introduction, Mr. Jackiw’s solo entry avoided both “look-at-me” histrionics and any undermining of the orchestra’s impetus. Instead, the balanced concentration from him, from Maestro Preu, and from the LBSO on top form, was maintained throughout, as if everyone was intently aware of Beethoven’s thoughts and following where he led.

Among many stand-out moments, particularly noteworthy were the perfect pianissimo unanimity of trumpets and timpani (after many measures’ silence) as they paved the way for the recapitulation, and then Mr. Jackiw’s delivery of Kreisler’s extraordinary first-movement cadenza (hat-tip to my LA Opus colleague Jim Ruggirello for confirming it was that one!), awash with fearsome double-stops but staying very close to the movement’s musical substance.

Theater an der Wien, where Beethoven's Violin Concerto was first performed, on December 23,
1806, by the violinist Franz Clement (1780-1842); Clement was also a composer, and his own
Violin Concerto in D, composed the year before, is well worth hearing.

In this performance one marveled again at Beethoven’s daring and originality in the Larghetto slow movement, so spare in texture from the outset and becoming yet more so as it proceeds. At an appropriately not-too-slow tempo, the violin in Mr. Jackiw’s hands seemed to be delivering whispers of ironic comment on the fragmentary variations of the opening theme as they passed by on woodwind and strings; at this speed the one ff orchestral outburst near the end seemed for once inevitable rather than a shocking intrusion, and set up a lithe, dancing account of the Rondo finale that brought the whole concerto in, tumultuously cheered, at a trim 42 minutes.

The symphony’s opening, from the first
 published edition, c.1850. After his
death the manuscript stayed with
his brother Ferdinand until Schumann’s
discovery of it in 1838 led to the first
performance, under Mendelssohn, 

in Leipzig on March 21, 1839.
If anything, the performance after the interval of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major “The Great”, D. 944 was even finer (no room for any overture with these two—by Classical norms—behemoths). As already noted, the very opening, a long theme whose elements have much to do in the ensuing movement, played on two unaccompanied unison horns, marked Andante and piano, is as remarkable and individual as Beethoven’s drum taps, but recent performance practice with it has gone in something of an “opposite” direction.

Many conductors of the mid-20th century took it very spaciously, conjuring sublime Romantic vistas, but in order to get the main exposition of the movement under way at anything like its Allegro, ma non troppo marking (or indeed faster, as was often the case) they were forced speed up a lot, despite Schubert marking no accelerando. More recently, HIP (historically informed performance) practice has taken the horns’ opening far more swiftly. This avoids the need to tread on the gas later, but inevitably loses most of the opening’s grandeur, making it seem caught in media res, almost throwaway.

Eckart Preu cunningly charted a middle course, giving the horn theme enough space not to lose its sense of epic potential, but not so slow as to necessitate any jerking into a gallop later on. Indeed, as that opening theme passed from the horns to the woodwind choir, he equally cleverly gave the strings’ accompanying pizzicato plenty of rhythmic kick, pulling the music forward and fueling the propulsive energy that went on to carry the movement through to a triumphantly vigorous final statement by full orchestra of the opening theme (and, inter alia, without much slowing—Schubert asks for none—for the glorious second subject).

I was a little concerned about how the slow movement would go, given that in Preu’s short verbal summary of the work just before he raised his baton, he characterized it as mostly cheerful and positive, in common with the work as a whole. But to me its brittle minor-key march always seems ready from the outset to stumble and fall, and the very quick Andante con moto with which it began seemed just a bit too sprightly (but shout-out for the masterly cheer-leader playing of principal oboe Rong-Huey Liu).

However, the warm counter-theme that Schubert introduces after nearly 100 measures (and with no change of tempo), was most sensitively handled, with fabulous pianissimo string playing. Thereafter the build-up to the movement’s fff climax—where Schubert seems driven to a stormy cliff-top, stopping just short on the brink of throwing himself over—had just the right tragic inevitability, with warm, ample playing from the cellos beginning the movement’s subsequent long and soulful recovery from oblivion.

Eckart Preu and the Long Beach Symphony.

Maestro Preu had noted that by the time Schubert wrote this symphony (1825-26), Johann Strauss I was a successful waltz composer in Vienna, and that the Scherzo’s Trio section could be heard as reflecting this. Certainly it swung gloriously in this performance, with the whole woodwind choir caroling and carrying the great melody on high. The long Scherzo itself was bold and vigorous and—despite an unfortunate audience yell at its conclusion in misapprehension that the symphony was over—the cumulated energy carried over and intensified throughout Schubert’s immense finale.

This movement is cruelly demanding for the orchestra, particularly for the violins who have to repeat the same insistently rhythmic four-note phrase over hundreds of measures, but the LBSO under Preu’s sure hand sustained it seemingly effortlessly. Though his omission of the exposition repeats in the outer movements and the long second repeat in the Scherzo will have eased their task somewhat, to power Schubert’s mighty cosmic engine is still a huge challenge, and in this performance of one of the world’s greatest symphonies the LBSO were the equal of any orchestra I have heard, and I mean any


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, March 7, 2020,
8 p.m.
Images: Beethoven: Wikimedia Commons; Schubert: Figures of Speech; Violin Concerto manuscript: IMSLP; Theater an der Wien: Kultur Pool; Stefan Jackiw: artist website; Ninth Symphony title-page: IMSLP; Eckart Preu and LBSO: Caught in the Moment.

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