Dallas — The Dallas Symphony’s concert at the Meyerson Symphony Center on Thursday was part of their Beethoven Festival—a combination of symphonic and chamber music concerts in various venues. Since the main work on the program, Beethoven’s towering ninth symphony, is just under the length you would want for a complete concert, it was filled out by adding a first half. Beethoven wrote two “romances” for violin and orchestra and we heard them played by our new co-concertmasters. Nathan Olson started with the first one and Alexander Kerr played the second. The only drawback to this arrangement was the fact that the audience couldn’t help but compare them in their mind, as though this was final round in a violin competition.
Both violinists played beautifully and Dallas is fortunate to have them here. Olsen has a bigger sound. His performance was technically secure, especially in the double stops, but it felt a little dry. Kerr has a more refined sound and he used it to his advantage as he gave the second romance a perfect performance. It was romantic, but not to the level that would come later in musical history. His command over his bow arm allows him to play lovingly shaped phrases and his intonation was excellent—always in the center of the pitch.
There is a mystical quality to Beethoven’s ninth symphony. It is one of those works that transcends the field of music all together and has entered the shared public conscious. The tune for the last movement, on which Beethoven wrote a series of variations, has been extracted and included in many of the Protestant hymnals (set in four square harmony, of course). As such, it joins a very short list of classical compositions that have become songs that people sing. Full moon and empty arms, anyone?
Those unfamiliar with the ninth symphony are always surprised at its length and that they have to wait through three rather esoteric movements to get to the “good” part (as one member of the audience was overheard saying as he left). But, those impatient for the last movement could be thankful that music director Jaap van Zweden hurried through the symphony. The rest of us? Not so much.
Beethoven loved the metronome so much that he put such markings on many of his scores. Many musicologists feel that Beethoven’s metronome markings are way too fast and that there are multiple explanations offered by experts. The most well-researched theory is that Beethoven’s metronome was broken. An excellent summary of this theory appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine in April 2013.
Van Zweden must belong to the camp that thinks Beethoven’s metronome was just fine because he delivered a performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony that really scooted along. In fact, it even looked like he was impatient with how fast it was already going. When in two, his beat was fine on the downbeat, but he got to the bottom of the gesture so soon that he needed to tread water a while before he could give the upbeat. He would wiggle the baton around, once even in a super quick four pattern, before giving the upbeat. The orchestra is obviously used to this because they turned in a splendid performance. Van Zweden could take such quick tempi with impunity. His virtuoso orchestra is able play anything—even the very fast parts going faster.
The only complaint about the actual playing in the symphony is that the timpanist was overenthusiastic, especially in the Scherzo. While it must have been fun to play, it was out of scale.
The chorus, under the superb direction of Joshua Habermann, sang magnificently. They produced a refined and full sound that was perfectly in tune and with excellent diction. If anything, they were too refined in the most intense moments when Beethoven puts all of them in the top of their range, as though the “Millionen” (millions) were all crying out to the heavens.
The four soloists are a distinguished bunch: soprano Erin Wall, alto Tamara Mumford, tenor Clifton Forbis (a last-minute replacement) and bass Raymond Aceto. The bass has the most solo singing and Aceto’s huge, deep and resonant basso profundo was the perfect voice of doom warning us. His message is not with chaotic music such as you hear in the winds right before he sings. “Nicht diese Tone” (“Not these sounds”) he states, exhorting us to something more pleasing.
Forbis, a professor at Southern Methodist University and the Dallas Opera’s Tristan from a few years ago, did a fine job with one of Beethoven’s oddities. Turkish things were all the rage at the time, so the tenor gets to sing Turkish music à la Beethoven. It is an ungrateful solo, even more so when taken so fast, but Forbis made the most of it. The music afterwards was a blur.
The soprano and alto do not have solo work and the cadenza the quartet sings is always a problem. It is instrumental music and not very singable. Many times, it is a disaster. Not so here. The quartet did as fine a job with it as this listener has heard. Here, van Zweden’s lickety-split tempi was a boon.
It wasn’t just that van Zweden took things faster than the broken metronome crowd would like. An argument could be made that his reading of the symphony is exactly correct and that Beethoven himself would have approved. What made the performance seem overly fast, even in the first movement that was taken at a more reasonable tempo, was his phrasing. He hurried phrases, along within his already fast tempi, butting them up end to end with little space, musical daylight, between them. He rarely breathes with the musical phrase. Taking a breath between phrases, like a singer or wind player, would help him shape their beginnings and their ends.
The cello recitatives in the last movement were also questionable. Wordlessly, Beethoven is talking to us here, as he offers up fragments of the movements you just heard. One opinion is that he is unhappy with what has come before, with softer judgment on the slow movement, but is very pleased with the tune he offers for the set of variations. Whatever you think he is saying is immaterial. What is important is that these recitatives are saying something, anything, and not just some phrase of cello music.
However, all this aside, this was a stellar performance that dazzled the audience with its shear virtuosity and monumental size. This is one of the masterworks of Western music and performances as good as this one are rare indeed.