For the first full week of subscription concerts by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) prepared a program consisting entirely of symphonies, all with C as their respective tonal centers. The first half of the program was in C major, opening with Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/69, to which he gave the name “Laudon” (one of the few symphonies whose name was provided by Haydn himself), and Jean Sibelius Opus 52, his third symphony. The intermission was followed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 67 (fifth) symphony in C minor as the only selection.
MTT has given a generous amount of attention to Opus 67 during his tenure as Music Director, most recently in June of 2015, when he reconstructed the famous “musical Akademie” marathon concert held at the Theater an der Wien on December 22, 1808. In addition, his 2009 performances provided the source for the SFS Media recording, released in February of 2011, that coupled Opus 67 with the Opus 58 (fourth) piano concerto in G major (another selection from the Akademie performance), featuring pianist Emanuel Ax. For all that attention, however, I have yet to encounter a performance that felt as if MTT was presenting Opus 67 on “automatic pilot.” Every time he returns to it, he seems to bring fresh perspectives, enthusiastically affirming the precept that there is never any one way of performing a piece of music.
Last night much of that freshness came from MTT’s balance of his instrumental sonorities. When the notes are that familiar, the attentive listener becomes aware of how specific resources are deployed. MTT called out just how much attention Beethoven brought to his instrumentation, not only to find the right voices for all of those familiar themes but also to explore any number of innovative approaches to blending the sonorities of those voices. This was not just a matter of bringing in less conventional instruments, such as the piccolo and the contrabassoon. It also entailed decisions as to which winds were prominent for which passages, making sure that the return of any theme was always accompanied by a shift in its coloration. When presented with a generally brisk approach to tempo, these ever-shifting sonorities endowed Opus 67 with a succession of bursts of freshness, offering yet another “first encounter” with an all-too-familiar composition.
Would that the first half of the program had been as stimulating! The Haydn selection, after all, was being given its very first set of performances by SFS. The name Haydn assigned was that of General Ernst Gideon Freiherr von Laudon, who had been responsible for a massive defeat of the Turks. However, the Wikipedia page for this symphony cites Horst Walter’s essay, which argued that the symphony was not a “victory lap” but was written for purely economic reasons. Indeed, the celebratory spirit reflects the honorary rhetoric of an earlier symphony, Hoboken I/48 (also in C major), which was apparently composed to recognize a visit by the Holy Roman Empress, Maria Theresa of Austria. (This was not just “spirit;” the opening themes of the two symphonies are practically identical.)
Unfortunately, MTT’s approach to Hoboken I/69 turned the joyous into the ponderous. While the string section was reduced, it could easily have been cut in half yet again; and the balance against pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets (along with a historically-informed approach to the timpani) would still have been effective. Music that could have been sparkling with both wit and good fellowship quickly devolved into the banality of a soundtrack for the opening credits of a bloated Hollywood costume drama.
The Sibelius Opus 52 did not fare much better. This clearly required more massive sonorities. The presence of four horns, two trumpets, and three trombones were sufficient to establish that this was a “heavier” bill of fare. Nevertheless, when compared with his other symphonic music, Opus 52 shows Sibelius approaching his heaviest resources far more sparingly, almost as punctuation marks strategically situated to contrast an otherwise subdued rhetoric. This is a relatively short symphony; and any turbulent energy in the outer two movements orbits precariously around the middle Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto, a movement that combines charm and enigma in a manner reminiscent of Johannes Brahms’ most ingenious approaches to the intermezzo.
Unfortunately, MTT allowed overly-loud dynamics to take over Opus 52 early in the exposition of the opening movement, after which he was never able to recover a more sensitive rhetorical balance. Most disappointing was his inability to cast the Allegro, ma non tanto in the final movement as a gradually increasing crescendo. Instead, the entire symphony came off a little more than a barrage of surges and lurches with the middle movement serving only to allow the listener to catch his/her breath before the next volley got under way, The good news was that the Beethoven selection made up for the many missteps taken during the first half of the evening, but do any of us really want to settle for half a concert?