This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven‘s birth, so we should be getting no end to his music. That’s fine with me – the man was a genius who forever changed the course of music. If I am sick and tired of Mozart and Tschaikowsky, whose music is nice but horribly over-performed, I will likely never tire of Beethoven. Yet I realize the problem arises: what more can performances say with this repertory?
The Vienna Symphony Orchestra comes up to perform in Salzburg’s Great Festival House for a concert every two winters. This year they came with their chief conductor Philippe Jordan, the Swiss in his final year with them (he is taking over as the music director of the Staatsoper this year). My understanding is that Jordan and the Symphoniker have already done several cycles of the Beethoven symphonies for the last several years. And while I suppose that has served as warm-up for this year, it does run the risk that these works become too routine.
Tonight, Symphonies #5 and #6 lacked freshness. The performances were basically fine (although Vienna’s second-best orchestra, it is one of the top dozen in the world; Jordan is also an accomplished conductor of the 40-ish generation, even if not quite as exciting as his contemporaries Andris Nelsons, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, or Vladimir Jurowski, whom I would rate the most exceptional from that generation). But they performed from rote, and added nothing special, making tonight’s much-anticipated performance somewhat of a disappointment. The notes were there, it was Beethoven’s heavenly music, but I suppose I wanted and expected more.
The last time I heard the 5th, last year, Nelsons conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, in a somewhat edgier performance, following on the 4th (not the 6th, so an unusual pairing and way to appreciate both symphonies more). I heard the 6th last in 2016, with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla frenetically leading Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra, in an interpretation clearly designed to make the listener uncomfortable, and remind us that although today it seems a rather sedate work, the 6th shocked the music world in its own time as a revolutionary construction. Her interpretation, though radical, made the audience appreciate the symphony that much more.
Incidentally, Jordan and the Symphoniker did demonstrate they could provide more excitement during the encore: the overture Beethoven wrote to the incidental music for Goethe’s Egmont. This reading contained the drama the performances of the two symphonies lacked.
The orchestra performed the symphonies in reverse order – the same order in which they appeared on the program at the concert where Beethoven led their premieres. Although a concert of legend (mostly due to people thinking about it after-the-fact), that 22 December 1808 concert did not go so well: the orchestra was under-rehearsed, and Beethoven himself conducted although already mostly deaf. Doing just the two symphonies this evening, even with the encore, made for a short concert. I suppose if this orchestra wished to do something special, they could have scheduled the entire program from 22 December 1808: it had included not only the premieres of these two symphonies, but also excerpts from Beethoven’s Mass in C (premiered the previous year) and the premieres of the Piano Concerto #4 and Choral Fantasy. Performed right, reviving that famous concert would be an evening to remember Beethoven’s genius.