Overture to Egmont, Op. 84
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
James Conlon, conductor
Jonathan Biss, piano
Ar Ravinia Festival, July 24, 2014
Perhaps conductor James Conlon is one of those musicians who needs some time to warm up at the start of a concert. The opening performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture at the CSO concert he presided over at Ravinia on Thursday evening gave barely a glimpse of the heights to which his conducting would rise at its best over the course of the program. The orchestra played especially well for him, with clean articulation and a good deal of alertness, but the piece – part of the incidental music written to Goethe’s play of the same name, but perhaps not Beethoven at his most inspired – never quite came alive, between the at-times wooden phrasing (especially in the woodwinds) and lack of passionate abandon; the somewhat restrained tempo did not help matters, either.
The rendition of the Fourth Piano Concerto, featuring the rising young talent Jonathan Biss as soloist, was in part a different story. Mr. Biss is clearly a fine musician; he brought to the score a gentle but sure touch and a fresh, unaffected sense of phrasing, yet I lament his unwillingness to court extremes: Beethoven playing should bring thunder and lyrical sweep by turns rather than the modest scale Mr. Biss generally kept to. The orchestral accompaniment was also somewhat undistinctive, though hardly poor, in the rather long first movement, which is unusually slow and subdued for a Beethoven first movement (the marking is allegro moderato). In spite of some exceptionally lovely material, it requires from the performers more dramatic variety than was on display here to sustain its length.
Somehow, however, between the first and second movements James Conlon’s baton suddenly communicated a fresh infusion of inspiration. The ominous declamatory passage in the lower strings opening the second-movement andante con moto made me sit up and take notice: firmly yet musically shaped and with real weight. While Biss continued to deliver the solo part in a tasteful yet overly straightforward manner, the conductor proceeded to lead the orchestra through well-characterized accounts of the two final movements on a noticeably higher level than in the overture or, though to a lesser extent, the first movement of the concerto. The playing of the CSO under Conlon this evening was never languid or overly diffuse in tone, but the extra dose (or two) of personality and expressive emphasis added here was tremendously effective.
Fortunately, these last-mentioned qualities persisted through the Beethoven Seventh, with which the program closed. I wonder if this the most regularly programmed of the Beethoven symphonies among the major American orchestras, excluding perhaps the Boston Symphony, which makes a tradition of concluding its annual summer residency at Tanglewood with the mighty Ninth Symphony. At any rate, in some critical circles it seems fashionable whenever the Seventh is performed to complain about how often one hears it. Such jaded responses notwithstanding, I find little ground for myself to complain as this is the symphony of Beethoven I find myself listening to at home more than any other. While it may not quite equal the Third, the Fifth, and especially the Ninth for sheer range and depth of
emotional impact, this is in many ways a more subtly ingratiating work. The opening of the first movement evokes a dynamic yet serene grandeur one finds only in the later Beethoven sets the tone, in its way, for the entire work, in its alternation between various strains of uninhibited, rollicking joy and melancholy-tinged wistfulness; and the development in the vivace section of the first movement thrillingly draws out and contrasts so many motivic threads from the basic material of the exposition, making for a more subtle (yet highly satisfying) tour-de-force than the more concentrated and explosive developments in the first movement of, say, the Third or the Fifth.
From the very first measures of the poco sostenuto opening of the first movement, one could sense something special in Conlon’s rendition of this masterpiece: a sense of authority was palpable in the firm yet flowing rhythmic movement, the music gliding alone at a fast tempo without a sacrifice of weight. My only quibble is that some of the phrasing could have been rather more sustained, in keeping with Beethoven’s marking. The subsequent vivace brought well-shaped and often elegant playing with great flair, as well as a welcome touch of unobtrusive personality in the form of the occasional carefully placed rhythmic emphasis or extra lilt. All too often, today’s conductors try to inject a sense of spontaneity by, for instance, inserting exaggerated dynamic contrasts into the middle of a melodic line; at his best, James Conlon joined many of the great conductors of yesteryear (I think especially of Furtwangler, Toscanini, and Bruno Walter) in demonstrating how much character can be brought to interpretation while respecting and even underscoring the basic arc of melodic lines. Alas, this was not quite so marked in the second movement, which despite a strong start never quite attained the sense of atmosphere required to bring out the full impact of this somewhat repetitive movement, whose dark undertones have prompted many conductors over the years (less so nowadays, I suppose) to turn it into a kind of funeral march, although it can just as easily, and more naturally, be made to suggest a sort of autumnal dancing. Thankfully, there was much to enjoy in both the scherzo and the finale, which were notable for Conlon’s command of release and build-up of tension – especially in the finale, in which each new appearance of the main theme seemed to raise the intensity an extra notch after a deceptive calm. While still a work-in-progress in some respects, this was on the whole an admirable and enjoyable interpretation of this great work.