Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 27 October, 2009
Venue: Boston Symphony Hall
James Levine has never conducted Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. That was to have changed on October 3, when he was scheduled to lead a performance as part of a BSO program honoring retired harpist Ann Hobson Pilot. But unanticipated back surgery late last month forced Levine to withdraw from that appearance, and BSO assistant conductor Julian Kuerti stepped in to replace him on that occasion, as well as this one, when the Fourth symphony was paired with the ‘Eroica’ for the second program in an eagerly anticipated four-concert survey of all nine Beethoven symphonies. BSO audiences will now have to wait until later in the season to hear Levine lead Beethoven’s Fourth: in February when he and the orchestra are scheduled to revisit four Beethoven symphonies (Nos. 3, 4, 6 and 7), by which time one hopes Maestro Levine will have completely recovered.
This program’s pairing of Beethoven’s highly dramatic and groundbreaking ‘Eroica’ Symphony with his high-spirited Fourth offered a striking study in contrasts. Conducting both symphonies from memory, Kuerti was wonderfully alert, but seemed especially so in the Fourth symphony. Adopting consistently fast speeds, except in the slow introduction, he gave a splendid reading, full of natural vigor and dynamic contrast. The BSO players, playing at their customary high standard, responded with a highly satisfying performance of this captivating, often-witty work filled with freshness and surprises.
The ‘Eroica’ was less satisfactory; Kuerti led a rather low-keyed account. This was a performance which had breadth and dignity, but sounded overly ponderous at times. The tempo of the first movement was brisk, with inner details heavily accented. The great funeral march that is the second movement seemed especially labored. After a more crisply executed scherzo, Kuerti and the BSO delivered a relatively restrained finale, one which lacked the necessary tension and appropriate verve.