Fort Worth — Happy Birthday, Ludwig.
Beethoven, that is. The master was born in 1770 and therefore 2020 marks his 250th birthday year (Dec. 17 is the actual day); concerts of his music are expected to proliferate — as if we don’t already hear a lot of Beethoven. The Cliburn got a jump on the occasion on Saturday at Bass Performance Hall when they presented — what else? — his five piano concerti with stellar pianists.
Miguel Harth-Bedoya was magnificent as a collaborator with a highly responsive Fort Worth Symphony. Phrases were beautifully shaped and echoed the styles of the different pianists. There was a marked difference in Harth-Bedoya’s musical approach as the pianists changed. He was also sensitive to the presented tempi and made subtle adjustments to match the individual interpretations as each work progressed. My only criticism is that he overplayed the traditional approaches to the various candenzi. While these passages do build to a dramatic pause, each time he reached a dynamic that superseded subsequent levels. A minor quibble, considering what an overall superb job was done by both conductor and orchestra.
The project was divided into two concerts. The afternoon performance featured the first three concerti and the evening session finished off the cycle with the fourth and fifth. All of Beethoven’s concerti were written early in his career and mostly for his own concertizing as a pianist, a practice that was quite common at the time and continued up to Rachmaninoff. No. 5 was the only concerto he didn’t premiere himself.
Thus, unlike an assay of his piano sonatas or string quartets, we don’t get to experience the incredible journey that Beethoven took that transformed music forever. What these pieces doshow is his progression from his classical roots, influenced by Mozart who in turn was influenced by Haydn, to his first bold steps influenced only by himself, and into the new sonic world that he would create.
There is a prelude and postlude to his concerto cycle. A discarded early effort was written at the tender age of 14 and another aborted attempt made a few years later. Only fragments remain of either. A sixth was started but never finished. These are only of interest to musicologists.
Further, the first concerto was really the second one written, but since it was published first, it gets the honorific of “First.” In turn, it was played first in this concert series. Ideally, if we were to follow Beethoven’s stylistic progression on concerti, it should have come before the so-called “first."
One huge difference between the five is that No. 1 through No. 3 start with the classical tradition of a double exposition, meaning that there is an extended orchestral statement of the thematic materials before the piano enters. On the other hand, the piano starts the proceedings all by itself in Nos. 4 and 5, boldly announcing that something new is afoot.
And so the journey began.
The first concerto was played by Joyce Yang, who took the second prize in the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. She played a clean performance, eschewing the use of the sustaining pedal, saving it for color such as in some fast runs up the keyboard. She also brought out Beethoven’s characteristic changes of mood. But best of all, she reveled in his frequent use of humor, as well as taking a time out to playfully toss a few notes around before continuing. These aspects of his style, consistent throughout his career, are too often ignored. In Yang’s hands, you could almost see Beethoven wink at his audience.
Yang chose to play a cadenza in the first movement that was written by Beethoven, but much later than the concerto. It is a huge undertaking, requiring more virtuosity that the concerto itself, and is quite long. While her performance was impressive indeed, it tossed us out of the chronology with a peak at a stylistic future that surpassed even that of the final concerto. The second movement felt slow and a little too romantic, but it gave the principal clarinetist a star turn in a duet with Yang that dazzled. The last movement felt fast, but not rushed, and she exuded such joy while playing it that caught us all up in the same mood.
French pianist David Fray was up next with the earlist concerto in the canon. Since he specializes in music from Bach to the classical era, this was a perfect choice for him. This concerto is written for a smaller wind contingent, but Harth-Bedoya decided not to reduce the string section, which might have been sonically wise to do.
Fray’s demeanor was quite different from Yang’s. He frequently used his handkerchief to wipe his forehead and even gave the keys a wipe soon after he started. At one point, he jumped back from the piano after ending a passage as if it delivered him an electric shock.
On the plentifully positive side, he remained involved with the music in the tutti sections, when some pianists just sit and wait for their next turn to play. He overused the sustaining pedal, but then used it to great effect in the second movement. He left it down to give a ghostly effect to a passage where Beethoven wrote a single note recitative (an effect the composer was to use later in his “Tempest” sonata.) In the last movement, he peppered the notes with steely fingers, delivering crisp staccato stokes that he imbued with bounce. Overall, Fray’s performance was marked by Mozartian sensibility colored with a bit of subtle showmanship and some original interpretative flair.
Concerto No. 3 shows the composer beginning to shed his classical clothing. Right from the muscular opening, which traverses the barren landscape of the C-minor arpeggio, Beethoven states “things are going to be different from now on.” Pianist Jon Nakamatsu, who took first prize in the 1997 Cliburn competition, took up the challenge. Using minimal pedal, he matched the composer’s new forthright style throughout. When he used the pedal, it was to create a special effect such as making the big sweeps of scales sound almost harp-like. Ritards were observed but minimalized, as was the difference between marcato and staccato attacks while giving each their required attention. He also switched between those techniques and a lovely legato with ease.
The second movement was especially lovely. He took the opening chords somewhat freely and made sure that each note sounded simultaneously — not an easy task at the super soft dynamic level he used. He played his part with a lot of rubato while the orchestra moved strictly, which created an almost improvisational effect. Just wonderful. Harth-Bedoya started the third movement in a jaunty manner but, although matching the tempo laid out for him, Nakamatsu was all business. He didn’t even take the usual “victory lap” ritard at the end.
With Concerto No. 4, Beethoven’s nascent musical world introduced itself and music was never the same. Starting with this concerto, Beethoven takes on a more symphonic role for the concerto itself. No longer is this similar to what came before in that the orchestra was merely an accompaniment vehicle. This is a symphony with a piano solo and the two parts are equal and fully integrated. However, Beethoven gives the solemn entry to the piano alone. The young pianist George Li, born in 1995 and Silver medalist at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, took on the mammoth assignment.
He imbued the concerto with all of the appropriate gravitas and throughout knew when he was secondary and when he needed to step forward. The first movement came to such an exciting close that there was applause from the audience, which had restrained from intra-movement interruptions up to that point. The second movement was not as successful. He let it bog down with excessive rubato. In the third movement, he came in faster than Harth-Bedoya’s introduction and was off the races thereafter. Sometimes his very fleet fingers ran away from him. But there was no doubting his youthful energy and technical wizardry.
The final concerto was written at the time of his famous Sonata “Appassionata,” Op. 57, and shares its drama. The versatile Austrian pianist Till Fellner took up the challenge. His highly praised recording of all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas created some sense of anticipation for those in the audience familiar with them. What would he do?
Anyone expecting new and wild antics would have been disappointed. Right from the opening cadenza, played without an accent on virtuosity, Fellner took a serious and sober approach. While still exciting, he chose to bring out the monumental nature of this concerto, solidly laying it as the cornerstone of the future Beethoven.
He displayed steely fingers, but they didn’t produce as much sound as expected from just watching him. This created a problem later on when he exchanged chords with the orchestra. He couldn’t match Harth-Bedoya’s dynamic level so one of them needed to adjust, which didn’t happen.
Fellner was judicious with the pedal so his playing was remarkably clear and clean. Tempi were in line with Beethoven’s wishes, but he tended to exaggerate the ritards at the end of phrases. The second movement felt slow, but his playing here was energized with small, paired accelerandi and ritardandi that were quite effective in keeping the rocking motion of the music ever present. The introduction to the last movement grew, with growing excitement, out of what came before and he established a stately tempo. Fellner used some extended rubato instead of a full-blown ritard at the ends of phrases, wisely choosing not to interrupt the inevitable flow of the movement. He brought the concerto, and thus the entire series of performances, to an exciting close.
Expect many more celebrations of Beethoven this year, including a Cliburn festival, Beethoven at 250, which is five concerts Feb. 27-March 1 at the Modern Art Museum of Art.