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Goethe and Beethoven's 'Egmont'

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Beethoven, Piano Concertos No. 1 (cadenza by G. Gould), L. Vogt, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, S. Rattle
(EMI, 2002)
After an excellent German Requiem last week, Markus Stenz returned to the podium of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, heard on Saturday night in the Music Center at Strathmore. His all-Beethoven program was just as noteworthy for the range of sounds Stenz helped the orchestra create. Part of this success was likely due to Stenz's insistence that a pianissimo truly be a pianissimo, and part could be the result of his re-seating of the orchestra's string sections. The arrangement was similar to what Stenz used last week, although not noted in my review for lack of space: an antiphonal opposition of violins on either side, plus cellos in front of the violas in the center, with basses divided behind them on both sides. (Nothing in the music either last week or this week seemed to require an antiphonal sound.) This made the violas more hidden in sound, not exactly prominent even when they are in the front row, but it also likely forced the musicians to listen a little more carefully.

German pianist Lars Vogt last joined the BSO in 2002, before the foundation of this site. He had a star turn as soloist in Beethoven's first piano concerto, giving a pleasing weight in the keys but also beautifully shaped lines as he nestled comfortably in the sound envelope that Stenz helped the orchestra created around him. An early music crispness ran through Stenz's interpretation, light on vibrato and with a clean and short articulation on all three repeated notes of this most concise of head motifs in the first movement. A virtuosic handling of the first movement was capped by Vogt's choice of a long, contrapuntally complex, and at times truly weird cadenza: it sounded like Liszt or another 19th-century virtuoso, but it was actually written down by Beethoven himself, after the publication of this concerto. (Vogt has recorded an eccentric cadenza by Glenn Gould for this concert, over a decade ago.) The only drawback in the second movement, which was tender and musical, were occasional intonation disagreements between orchestra and piano, and the tempo choice, not too slow, was a nice twist. Vogt was rock solid in the parallel thirds, setting the third movement off at a brisk clip, and the left-hand crossings, giving each line crystalline clarity.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Guest conductor Markus Stenz pulls the BSO into an unknown but elite realm (Washington Post, March 14)
Beethoven's overture to Goethe's Egmont is plenty familiar; the rest of his score of incidental music, not so much. Of the nine pieces, the two songs for Clara, the woman loved by Egmont, are the most beautiful, sung here with a clear, measured tone by soprano Lauren Snouffer. Much of the orchestral music otherwise is fairly bland, adding up to not that much without the play it was meant to accompany. The narration read by British actor Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of Baltimore's Center Stage, was only a summation of the action of Goethe's play, but it did the trick. Stenz crafted a crisp and military March movement, and the overlap of words and music in the Melodrama was stirring. As he waits to die in prison, Egmont dreams of Clara, who appears in the guise of Freedom, inspiring Egmont to meet death with resolve, personified by the off-stage drummer that arrived on stage before the triumphant finale.

The play has obvious parallels in Beethoven's opera Fidelio, where the rescue fantasy becomes reality. This made the choice of the second Leonore overture an apt one to open this concert. Stenz's one fault, if it is one, is his sometimes exaggerated gesture. Occasionally both last week and this week, he seemed to rush the beat in his enthusiasm, which disconcerted the ensemble's unity at times, like the dramatic pauses in the opening section of this overture, tricking one of the horns into an early entrance at one point. Going over the top as he did, however, also led to striking dramatic contrasts, and the best moments were not necessarily the loud ones. The offstage trumpet solo, played from a balcony toward the rear of the auditorium, was particularly effective.

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