Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Symphony No.3 in E-flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 7 December, 2021
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
This uplifting and altogether sensational program illustrated a critical juncture in Beethoven’s ever-expanding view of possibility, when, between his Second and Third Symphonies, he became more acutely aware of his increasing deafness and at the same time made a huge leap in his compositional style. Jessica Hunt’s piece was influenced by his personal struggles which she related to her own experience to make a deeply personal thematic connection to his music.
Things got off to an exuberant start with a stunning rendition of Beethoven’s Second in which Nézet-Séguin used his broad and balletic conducting style to elicit spectacular sounds from the Philadelphians. Following an opening movement taken at a relentless pace, came an equally swift account of the mellifluous and tuneful Larghetto, distinguished by warm and melodic playing from the clarinets. The short, scampering Minuet – with its sudden shifts between high and low, loud and soft – was also hurried along, constantly shifting in instrumental color. And the glowing Philadelphia strings were at their most skillful as they whirred through the Finale.
After this came Hunt’s Climb, which received its world premiere in a Digital Stage concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra in October 2020. Hunt relates Beethoven’s despair and anxiety with his increasing hearing loss (spelled out in his Heiligenstadt Testament, written in the fall of 1802) to her own experience with chronic illness, characterizing her piece as “a letter-through-time to Beethoven to express my gratitude for his work and to express our silent kinship.” Hunt’s expertly orchestrated score – a vivid and terrifying depiction of her own experience attempting to climb stairs with her ever-present physical disability (she lives with dysautonomia, a condition that affects the nervous system) – has the same instrumentation as Beethoven’s Second and Third Symphonies. With its frantic opening chords, adrenaline rush, and musical metaphors of breathlessness, unsteadiness, and dread, the exhilarating but discomforting music gripped the listener for five minutes before coming to a sudden halt without reaching a final resolution, seemingly reflecting the uncertainties of living with an incurable disability.
The music segued from Hunt to Beethoven’s Third without pause. Of all the ‘Eroica’s I have heard, this was one of the most electrifying, with the ever-ebullient Nézet-Séguin summoning mostly bracing tempos but permitting enough fluctuations to let passages of elevated expressiveness shine through. Following a thrilling first movement, he allowed for expansion in the ‘Funeral March’ and obtained beautifully hushed pianissimos. After a rhythmically bouncy Scherzo, came a dazzlingly exuberant Finale highlighted by Jeffrey Khaner’s sparkling flute solo. This was a compelling performance, one that forced us to sit up and listen.