Friday, February 9, 2018

Ohlsson Brings Bold Beethoven to Davies

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt returned to the podium of Davies Symphony Hall to lead the first performance of the first of the two programs he prepared for his annual visit to the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). His concerto soloist was local pianist Garrick Ohlsson performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 73 (fifth) concerto (“Emperor”) in E-flat major. this was the only scheduled work for the first half of the program, whose second half was devoted entirely to the Opus 34 (second) symphony in G minor by Wilhelm Stenhammar.

Ohlsson’s approach to the Beethoven was unabashedly bold, very much an interpretation for the full strength of a well-crafted contemporary piano. Nevertheless, Ohlsson exhibited a firm command of the full scope of the dynamic range that Beethoven required for this concerto, even if the physical breadth of that range was greater than any that could have been achieved in Beethoven’s time. Within that breadth, Ohlsson was as sensitive to the soft as he could be assertive with the loud; and Blomstedt had the wisdom to reduce the string resources on the instrumental side to balance those soft passages at a conducive level.

Working together, Ohlsson and Blomstedt clearly shared a very clear set of ideas over how Beethoven chose to use dynamic levels for rhetorical purposes; and they knew how to make those levels work in the Davies space, which was far larger than any performing environment Beethoven could have envisaged. The result was very much Beethoven for the immediate present; and, if the impact of the broad strokes was the primary factor in eliciting shouts of “Bravo!” at the conclusion, it was the detail of the finer lines that made the journey through the entire concerto so exciting for the attentive listener.

Indeed, when Ohlsson returned after his ovation to take an encore, it was clear from his selection that he wanted those finer lines to linger. He chose to play the Andante cantabile (second) movement from Beethoven’s Opus 13 (“Pathétique”) sonata in C minor. This is the major-key movement that serves as the “calm between the two storms” of the minor-key outer movements. Yet within that calm, the middle section demonstrates that breadth of dynamic range was just as much a priority for Beethoven in 1798 (which the sonata was written) as it was in 1811 (the year in which Opus 73 was finished). If the concerto was a boldly extensive journey, the sonata movement was an intimate journey in microcosm, leaving the audience with a satisfying appreciation of the full breadth of Beethoven’s expressiveness.

The Stenhammar selection was clearly Blomstedt’s decision to honor his Swedish roots. Last night was the first time SFS had ever performed the Opus 34 symphony, meaning that Blomstedt never chose to program it during his tenure as Music Director. One can appreciate why, particularly when the music has to hold its own in the wake of such a bold celebration of Beethoven’s talents. Nevertheless, he was a significant figure in events such as the annual Nordic Music Days festival, from which this photograph was taken:

Nordic Music Days participants in Copenhagen in 1919. Stenhammar is seated on the left in the front row along with Karin Bronzell, Erkki Melartin and Carl Nielsen. Standing in the rear are Johan Halvorsen, Robert Kajanus, Georg Høeberg, Jean Sibelius and Frederik Schnedler-Petersen. (from a Web site documenting the travels of Jean Sibelius)

For most the familiar faces in that photograph are those of Nielsen and Sibelius, both of whom made significant achievements in the symphony genre. Stenhammar’s Opus 34 was composed in 1915, the year in which Sibelius’s fifth symphony (Opus 82 in E-flat major) was given its first performance on the composer’s 50th birthday. In that same historical context, Nielsen was working on his fourth symphony (Opus 29), which he would not complete until 1916. Nielsen gave this symphony the name “The Inextinguishable;” and, since it was composed in the midst of World War I, it is one of his most intense efforts.

Stenhammar’s Opus 34 is more than a little bit dwarfed by a context that includes these two symphonies by Sibelius and Nielsen. It is music in which all of the themes are straightforward and neatly accompanied. Nevertheless, when compared to its contemporary symphonies (not to mention the Beethoven selections the preceded it on this program), it comes across as too modest to make much of a mark. It is music that is, at best, diverting, selected for this particular program, perhaps, as a pressure valve to dispel all the intensity of the Beethoven selections.

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