The refined side of Beethoven


POSTED: Tuesday, March 31, 2009

We all know Beethoven almost intimately. We know about his passion and his temper. His music is the embodiment of Romantic thought and reflects a spirit with which we still identify. His music is also big business. Festivals celebrating his genius have attracted audiences from all over the world, during his lifetime and after.

But a true celebration of a great individual and his art needs a solid program and a suitable venue, and must demonstrate excellence in performance. The task is not easy because so many excellent recordings of Beethoven's orchestral work are available, setting high standards, and many interpretations have raised discussions among Beethoven lovers.

The Honolulu Symphony is up to these challenges. The two-weekend sequence of Beethoven's overtures, concertos and symphonies under Andreas Delfs' baton was planned with intelligence and consistency. And so far, the soloists, the conductor and the orchestra have proved that Beethoven's orchestral works are not only about passion and intensity, but also about refinement and precision.

The program was thoughtfully crafted. Last weekend's first concert, for example, included works from Beethoven's Heroic period — the first decade of the 1800s, when he began exploring a new musical language, moving away from the classical symmetry of Mozart and Haydn. The program included Overture No. 3 to the opera “;Leonora”;; Piano Concerto No. 3; and Symphony No. 3, “;Eroica.”; All extremely “;vital,”; these three works numbered “;3”; (the early stage of his Heroic period) signify his willingness to “;take a new way,”; as the composer said in 1802.

Throughout the concert, Delfs paid extreme attention to the details. The orchestral parts came out clearly, the dynamics emerged perfectly, and the whole was crystalline. And to make it a memorable evening, world-famous pianist John O'Conor delivered an exceptional interpretation of the Piano Concerto. His eloquent phrasing and strong touch (what a left hand!) are unique. And how well he works with Delfs. Together they have just completed a recording of all the Beethoven piano concertos with the London Symphony.

The “;Eroica”; was composed to celebrate the French Revolution and Napoleon. But Napoleon was proclaimed emperor, and the disappointed composer changed his mind. Almost following a hero's journey, the work includes a first vigorous movement powerfully planned by Delfs, and a moving second movement's Funeral March played very delicately by the orchestra. In particular, oboist Scott Janusch and cellist Joseph Johnson were terrific.

On Sunday, the program started somehow less “;dramatically”; than the previous concert. The first half comprised the Overture to the opera “;Fidelio”; and the Concerto for Violin in D, with the second half devoted to Symphony No. 7. “;Fidelio”; was the new title Beethoven gave to his “;Leonora”; opera after changing several features, including the overture, to make it more accessible. We heard the earlier version on Saturday and it was a treat to hear how Beethoven adapted it.

The Violin Concerto, a delightful “;old-style”; piece written in a hurry for his violinist friend Clement, does not present particularly daring virtuosic challenges, but Robert McDuffie brilliantly elaborated his long cadenzas and comfortably played two melodies simultaneously in the first movement.

The Symphony No. 7 was a treat for the audience. Originally performed to honor soldiers wounded in the battle of Hanau and to the retreat of Napoleon, the work had an altogether different inspiration from the “;Eroica.”; Called by Wagner “;the apotheosis of the dance,”; it is the celebration of powerful rhythmic force, and Delfs and the orchestra delivered it as such. The orchestra's shading and its interwoven lines were almost visible to us, and probably to Delfs, who conducted scoreless.

This weekend, another Beethovenian luxury: the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, two more overtures, a triple concerto and the return of O'Conor performing Piano Concerto No. 5, the “;Emperor.”; This festival cannot be missed.



» What: Honolulu Symphony Beethoven Festival
» When: Continues at 8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday
» Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
» Cost: Tickets are $20 to $82, available at Ticketmaster outlets, (800) 745-3000 and http://www.ticketmaster.com; or call 792-2000.
» Info: Visit www. honolulusymphony.com