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Music Review

BSO spotlights Beethoven in transition

Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall on Saturday.

Stu Rosner

Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall on Saturday.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Saturday, the in-between program of a two-week Beethoven immersion — all three “Leonore” overtures, all five piano concerti, and the Triple Concerto, with conductor Christoph von Dohnányi and pianist Yefim Bronfman — consisted of, in a way, in-between Beethoven. The “Leonore” (No. 2) was neither the most intense nor the final of the overtures intended for Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio”; the concerti (the Third and the Fourth) neither the young, classically oriented Beethoven nor the later, monumental Beethoven — the figure, one suspects, that Henry Lee Higginson had in mind when he had Beethoven’s name, and Beethoven’s name only, carved at the top of the Symphony Hall proscenium.

Of course, that gilded escutcheon could be a reminder that BSO audiences have hardly been starved for chances to hear this repertoire. Maybe that’s why Dohnányi led the second “Leonore”
overture as if to simulate Beethoven’s very working-out of the music: deliberately paced, transitions and resolutions slightly suspended, the main theme quietly testing itself out before fully bursting forth, the offstage trumpet call (delivered by Thomas Rolfs as an exceptionally exact Gabriel) emerging like a fortuitous
inspiration.

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The Third Concerto (Op. 37) — which finds Beethoven beginning to put his own indelibly dramatic stamp on the key of C minor, among other things — was similarly measured, providing space for the orchestra’s luxurious sonority, as well as Bronfman’s wealth of detail, intricate variations of tempo and touch endeavoring to make the near-constant arpeggios and ornamentation as much a stream of eloquence as virtuosic exercise. (Bronfman’s touch, as ever, was marvelous: hammered and polished bronze, palpably muscular and delicately, elegantly honed all at the same time.) The slow movement was particularly ruminative, attaining stretches of meditative stillness. Instances of Beethovenian force were invariably burnished into romantic warmth.

The Fourth Piano Concerto (Op. 58) was originally an in-between piece, its public premiere famously sandwiched between those of Beethoven’s Sixth and Fifth symphonies. Saturday’s performance was lean and straightforward: the first movement showcasing Bronfman’s speed and evenness; the Orphic slow movement relatively unsentimental; the finale filled with confident barnstorming, gliding from loop to loop and roll to roll. There was more chamber-music intimacy than the Third, but also more rhythmic drive and momentum. Whether one heard it as Beethoven expertly deploying Classical-era symmetries or Beethoven restlessly pacing back and forth behind a stylistic cage depends on just which Beethoven one would prefer memorialized over the stage.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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