Boston Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven Symphony Cycle – 1 [Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos]

Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 22 October, 2009
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall

Rafael Frühbeck de BurgosThis was supposed to be the concert in which Music Director James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra embarked on their traversal of Beethoven’s nine symphonies in four programs within a two-week period. But Levine is still recovering from recent back surgery, and the first two programs have been handed over to other conductors, with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos stepping in to lead part one, and BSO Assistant Conductor Julian Kuerti scheduled to take over part two on October 27 and 29. Levine is now expected to return to the BSO in time for part three, which starts on October 30.

Although the scores of the nine symphonies remain challenging to play, they could not be more familiar to the BSO. The orchestra has been playing Beethoven since its very first concert, which took place exactly 128 years ago, on 22 October 1881, in the Boston Music Hall. That inaugural program included Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture (a work which began the orchestra’s second and third seasons as well), and over the course of the 1881-82 season, the orchestra went on to perform all nine Beethoven symphonies in chronological order, a feat replicated in the second and third seasons.

The BSO has played each of the nine symphonies innumerable times. But the current cycle marks the first time since 1933-34 (when Serge Koussevitzky led all nine symphonies and a variety other works by Beethoven in a series of six programs spread over six months) that the orchestra has played all nine symphonies within a single season, and the first time in such a short time span.

To be sure, it is a great disappointment that Levine has been forced to miss the first two programs of this Beethoven cycle, which has been advertised as one of the BSO season’s major events, if not its highpoint. One can only speculate how much the BSO musicians would have gained from rehearsing and performing nothing but Beethoven under their music director for nearly a month straight.

In the meantime 76-year-old Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conducting from memory for the duration of the concert, maintained a sense of grandeur from the start of this all-Beethoven program and drew bracing performances from the orchestra.

The evening began with a fresh and vibrantly played account of Symphony No. 1. Frühbeck highlighted the work’s complexities and its novel ideas: the majestic character of the introduction followed by the playful energy of the Allegro con brio, the lighthearted gallantry of the Andante, the vigor and perfect voicing in the scherzo (marked Menuetto), and the wit of the finale.

Enjoyable as the performance of the First Symphony was, it was followed by an even more pleasing performance of the Second Symphony. Frühbeck was keenly attuned to the layered textures of Beethoven’s score. His reading was fiery in the outer movements, while the rapturous Larghetto, one of Beethoven’s most beautiful movements, moved at a congenial pace as he molded the melodies with remarkable warmth.

In the Fifth Symphony, Frühbeck gave a direct and straightforward reading, his grandiose gestures drawing strong and dramatic playing from the orchestra. This was a deeply satisfying and vital performance, riveting from the first bar to the last, offering a finale that was overflowing with joy and momentum.

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