Beethoven’s Heiligenstädter Testament [US premiere]
Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op.19
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Gil Shaham (violin)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 15 March, 2009
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
The last of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s three Carnegie Hall concerts opened with the US premiere of Rodion Shchedrin’s Beethoven’s Heiligenstädter Testament, a result of the BRSO’s commissioning series of new works dedicated to Beethoven. In an interview he gave to German Radio Station Bayern 4 Klassik preceding the Munich world premiere in December, the composer talked about this concert-overture as an expression of the tragic moments in Beethoven’s life at the time he wrote the Testament, his despair over realizing that he was going deaf. At the same time Shchedrin wanted to look forward to the creative works yet to come and the work moves “from darkness to light”, overcoming the crisis.
It starts with soft ominous, dark chords, punctuated by a melody in the timpani, and soon moves to a prominent theme, a scale motif in the strings. Throughout Shchedrin employs Beethovenian techniques like short themes, fairly tonal harmonies, and restricts himself to the instruments of Beethoven’s orchestra (the last movement of the Fifth, to be precise, including trombones and piccolo), but there are no quotations. Anchored by recurrences of the scale motif, the atmospheric piece incorporates elements such as an extensive melody for the viola section, a clarinet and bassoon duet against a background of violins. Slowly gathering tension, it works its way to a brooding chorale that dissolves into a peaceful, mournful segment. Another build-up follows, resulting in five loud tutti chords, and only then has ‘transfiguration’ been reached; the piece ends quietly on a major chord with added sixth, while a horn states a short subject. One could characterize this 17-minute piece as a tone poem of sorts. Jansons and the orchestra brought it off very convincingly and beautifully.
Julia Fischer was to have been the soloist for Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, but had to cancel for health reasons. Gil Shaham substituted on short notice. Nevertheless, the only indication of a less-than-ideal rehearsal occurred in the first movement when the soloist seemed to want to go ahead at times, but the conductor seemed hesitant to follow. For his part, Shaham completely inhabited the piece and gave a ravishing performance with impeccable technique – the sparkling Scherzo especially comes to mind – and displaying an extensive tonal palette of myriad shadings and characters. Jansons and the orchestra accompanied with transparency and sensitivity, featuring outstanding contributions by the woodwind principals.
After the interval Brahms’s First Symphony should have been the crowning glory of an exciting concert, and it opened promisingly with the deep, rich sound of the orchestra’s string section. However, it soon became apparent that there were going to be problems. For one, when only single woodwind are employed, they simply cannot balance such a large and thick sounding string section and they became practically inaudible during loud passages. But more importantly, no amount of orchestral brilliance could make up for the lack of a cohesive musical idea on Jansons’s part. The first movement lost momentum less than 20 bars into the Allegro, the initial tempo having been sacrificed to minute interpretative inflections; it never regained any sense of forward motion, but statically moved from bar to bar without any sense of direction. The second movement was beautifully played, with superb solos from oboe, clarinet, horn and leader, but Jansons again tightly controlled proceedings and thereby stifled the flow of the music. He even went as far as subdividing beats when the orchestra plays syncopated off-beats against the woodwind solos, an insult to any but the most amateur orchestras. Only in the third movement did Jansons display any kind of trust in his players, going for longer lines, and it turned out to be the most satisfying of the four.
The finale again was micro-managed and furthermore chopped into sections which had almost no relation to one another. The main theme was taken at an extremely leisurely pace, perhaps to invoke the spirit of the “Ode to Joy” and point to Brahms as Beethoven’s successor, but the following animato statement of the same theme then had to be taken at a speed which was a giant jump into another character altogether rather than an exalted restatement. The chorale near the end likewise was merely loud rather than triumphal, since again it had not organically grown out of the preceding sections. Any loud ending in C major will trigger a prolonged ovation, and the orchestra offered two encores – a mannered performance of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.5, and Josef Strauss’s Ohne Sorgen! (Without Cares), a Polka.