Boston does not want for Beethoven. So when a visiting orchestra arrives with an all-Beethoven program, it better have something new to offer. Sunday at Symphony Hall, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer brought on 36 New England Conservatory students to perform in the finale of the Fifth Symphony. That was the highlight of a program that was well played but never revelatory.
I was pleased to see the first and second violins seated antiphonally; that’s the arrangement Beethoven wrote for. But the composer can hardly have anticipated an ensemble for his First Symphony in which 50 of the 63 players were strings. Too often the ravishing wind section was buried. And though for both the First and Fifth Symphonies Fischer seated his timpanist directly in front of him, the timpani, too, didn’t stand out.
The best part of the First Symphony was the Andante cantabile con moto, taken more slowly than Beethoven’s metronome marking but with a nice lilt. The scherzo-like Menuetto was heavy-footed, however, and the outer movements, all bluster and battering, were more about digging in than moving forward. The composer’s wit was also in short supply.
Richard Goode was the soloist in the Fourth Piano Concerto, and he gave a delicate, pearly, almost rococo reading. He made his opening phrase reverent but didn’t convey its chant-like weight, and in Beethoven’s 72-measure gem of a slow movement, there was little give and no rapture. There wasn’t much give from the orchestra, either; it was angular in the slow movement and hectic elsewhere.
Fischer, who conducted both symphonies without a score, took great care with the opening four-note motto of the Fifth. Yet too much of his Allegro con brio lacked brio. The martial brass and timpani that keep interrupting the pleasant stroll of the slow movement didn’t register clearly. And the scherzo was stolid where you might hope for stealthy and spooky.
The scherzo leads into the finale without a break, so I was wondering how the NEC students would manage their entrance without disrupting the performance. No problem: Carrying their music stands and their instruments, they entered through both stage doors, set up, and began playing at once, hardly missing the finale’s first big three notes. Now boasting more than 100 musicians, the orchestra made a triumphal procession out of this last movement. It wasn’t exactly what Beethoven wrote, but the massive expression of joy would surely have put a smile on his face.
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Symphony Hall, Feb. 12
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