Beethoven
Fidelio – Overture
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin
Leonard Slatkin. ©Steve J. Sherman It was live from Detroit, played to a large in-house audience at 3 in the afternoon, and available to the world via the Internet. I tuned-in at 8 o’clock London time. It’s easy; just register your name and email address on the Orchestra's website and you’re in business, and it’s free.
If Leonard Slatkin is perhaps not primarily associated with the music of Beethoven – American, British, French and Slavic repertoire certainly, he is devoted to the classics and conducted this concert from memory as part of the current Detroit Beethoven symphony cycle that is scheduled not only for further webcasts but also downloads. I missed some of the ‘television’ preamble to the concert, but caught Concertmaster Yoonshin Song’s arrival. She was followed by Music Director Slatkin, genial and keen. The Overture to Fidelio was muscular and alive with feeling, the broadcast sound good and the direction of the cameras analogous to the music; qualities that were maintained throughout the broadcast.
Today there is every danger of Beethoven’s symphonies being played as fast as possible, bloodless in tone, and “historically informed” (I failed to warm to the recorded cycles of Chailly and Krivine, for example); the result is that most performances sound the same. Never mind (for the moment) Furtwängler, Klemperer and Toscanini, or Böhm and Karajan, let’s cherish the present-day ‘old guard’ (I use the term with admiration) of Blomstedt, Colin Davis, Dohnányi, Maazel, Masur and Skrowaczewski who preserve a dignified and blooming way with Beethoven – Barenboim, too, now that he has turned 70 – and celebrate the younger man that is Christian Thielemann who does Beethoven his way, romantic and spacious, interventionist (like some of the above), standing out from the crowd of fast and clipped conductors.
Slatkin also gives time for the music to express itself and doesn’t downgrade timbres to equate to an eighteenth-century band; how it might have been. Instead he glories in the richness and the virtuosity of his Detroit Symphony musicians while avoiding cloying textures and sensationalism. There was something of a hiatus before Symphony 4, Slatkin not able to start, presumably due to coughs from the audience (one of the cameras caught someone late in arriving or changing seats). It’s a work that begins at dawn (maybe), at a very low dynamic, so you need silence to set the mood. This was a buoyant, airy and nimble performance, the surface ruffled and peered beneath, the slow movement although moving forward not without pathos, the finale flying by but with light, shade, emphasis and lucid articulation. “The Fourth Symphony employs a technique called hocketting. It is similar to antiphony, except that rather than calling and responding an entire phrase or theme, only part of it is used.” So said the blurb underneath the picture; a new one on me, and that hocket term normally only tends to come into use when discussing the music of Harrison Birtwistle.
It was good to find Slatkin deploying antiphonal violins with cellos left of centre with double basses also on the left – that’s the pertinent sort of being historically aware. The Fifth Symphony was given a candid reading, avoiding heaviness with tempos well-judged to take the music onwards without losing articulation and detail; I shall long remember the artistry of principal oboist Donald Baker in his soliloquy in the first movement and the extra degree of grandeur that Slatkin introduced in the slow movement. A nice surprise occurred in the scherzo, Slatkin repeated it; it’s not in the score but some feel that Beethoven’s copyist failed to mark it. Its reprise here was an inevitable treat; and the finale (exposition heard twice; it’s one of the mandatory ones) was a noble conclusion, the trombones allowed to rasp their newly introduced presence, the equally additional piccolo also clearly heard. Slatkin had cannily allowed himself room to make an accelerando in the coda while remaining organic to what had gone before, and the final vindicating chord included some dynamic variance on timpani. The DSO faithful loved the performance; so did your reviewer.
These were heart-warming, engaging and stirring readings, the DSO in splendid form, not least the lithe and gorgeous-sounding strings and the characterful woodwind section. I wasn’t there – and being present in a hall to share the experience adds another layer – but having the concert delivered to your doorstep is rather remarkable, and these accounts of contemporaneously written but very different symphonies proved thoroughly enjoyable and refreshing. The DSO had a long and damaging strike recently (a Beethoven cycle a casualty during the six months' stand-off) and Slatkin a heart-attack before that; both seemed fighting-fit on this occasion and ready to take on anything. I shall be returning to Detroit thanks to the World Wide Web.

 

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