Feat Of Endurance Revisits Beethoven Night Of Premieres

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Music director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony in a replica of the famous 1815
Michael Tilson Thomas reenacted the 1808 program that premiered Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.
(Kristen Loken/San Francisco Symphony)
By Jeff Dunn

SAN FRANCISCO – By marvelous coincidence, June 20, 2015, saw attempts at the reenactment of two momentous historical events. Davies Hall housed the San Francisco Symphony in a performance of the all-Beethoven Akademie concert of December 22, 1808. Belgium’s province of Walloon Brabant fielded the Battle of Waterloo of June 18, 1815. When you think about it, the two have a lot in common.

In terms of historical impact, the battle ended a period of revolution, ushering in an era of conservatism and stability, whereas the concert, according to attendee E.T.A. Hoffmann, marked the advent of a revolutionary “Romantic” era in music. But the  reenactments were similar in their attempts to show what things really were like back then, only to introduce almost risible differences. If it were not for the spur to the imagination, one might insist the whole reenactment enterprise is a waste of time and money. Can we really understand what it felt like to a soldier or officer to witness Waterloo? Reenactments do not duplicate the deaths, blood, fear, glory, and stench.

Jonathan Biss was the soloist in Piano Concerto No. 4.
Jonathan Biss, master of Beethoven’s overkill trills. (B. Ealovega)

Nor can concertgoers ever hear Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies for the first time in history the way freezing Viennese did that December, neither will any performance group today mangle the premiere of the Choral Fantasy the way Beethoven and frustrated musicians did so that they had to restart the piece. Concert pitch A is now 440 in the U.S., not nearly a half tone lower as it was back then in Vienna. Jonathan Biss’ massive Steinway is not Beethoven’s fortepiano. Like a cinematic sci-fi rendition of an alien planet in 3-D, we must settle for a simulacrum of the actual experience that first faded and then disappeared with the eventual deaths of those who were there.

Simulacrum or no, Michael Tilson Thomas’ evocation of the famous 1808 Akademie benefit concertorganized by the almost totally deaf Beethoven — brought cheering and hooting in standing ovations by almost all comers after every piece. And there were a lot of works, eight total over four hours with three intermissions. The sturdy Viennese got by with only one intermission, but they didn’t have today’s work rules.

The marathon concert began with the Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral). This is the work that Brockway and Weinstock, in their popular 20th-century history for general readers, Men of Music, declared to be “plain dull.” As they stated: “… one can only suspect that those who help by their applause to keep it in the repertoire really delight in the birdcalls, the rippling brook, and the storm rather than in the basic themes and their development.”

On the strength of the audience response to MTT’s brilliant rendition, it looks like the work will remain in the repertoire for another several decades. With a smallish orchestra that included only four basses, MTT, with judicious tempos, a wide dynamic range, and expressive conducting, made the work sound as fresh as a downhill roll in tall green grass. In fact, having tried to put myself in the mindset of the 1808 hearers, the music sounded more revolutionary to me in some ways than the Symphony No. 5, which came later in the program. (The 1808 program listed the Pastoral inaccurately as the Fifth Symphony, due to its position in the program, with the Symphony No. 5, later in the program, being identified as the Sixth.)

Soprano Karita Mattila: soloist in concert aria 'Ah! perfido.'
Soprano Karita Mattila sang ‘Ah! perfido.’ (Lauri Eriksson)

The concert aria Ah! perfido, followed, sung by soprano Karita Mattila in a powerful and dramatic rendition that was marred by an uncharacteristic lack of articulation and an overly watery tone to her voice. After the first intermission, soprano Nikki Einfeld, mezzo-soprano Abigail Nims, tenor Nicholas Phan,  bass-baritone Shenyang, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (prepared by Ragnar Bohlin) sang the Kyrie and Gloria from the Mass in C major in splendid fashion. Einfeld’s voice was a little pinched at the start, but she soon warmed up. Phan’s tenor was terrific from the get-go and for the rest of the concert.

Now appeared Indiana-born pianist Jonathan Biss in the Piano Concerto No. 4. He continued the crowd’s enthusiasm for Beethoven’s marathon event with a delightfully romantic interpretation, full of sensible rubatos and the occasional idiosyncratic quirk, for example, his refusal to recognize the accent at the end of the third movement’s rondo theme. Biss was a master of Beethoven’s overkill trills in the second movement. That music reminded me, in its setting of the piano as a supposed Orpheus against wild animals of the underworld, of Beethoven’s long shadow touching the amazing yet rarely played second concerto of Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927).

Two more intermissions surrounded the Symphony No. 5, a piece so familiar today that its bombshell effect on the poor Viennese probably cannot be imagined. I moved to the Side Terrace so I could better appreciate Beethoven’s genius of orchestration (e.g., his introduction of trombones, piccolo, and contrabassoon to the concert stage). The position also allowed me to enjoy the San Franciscans’ customary virtuosity, which, except for a slight mushing of the famous first four notes, was admirably displayed.

Beethoven in an 1804-05 portrait by
Beethoven: 1804-05 portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mahler.

Then followed the Sanctus from the Mass in C major, nicely performed by the chorus and aforementioned soloists. Biss returned to the stage with a runaway rendition of the Fantasy in G minor for piano solo, Op. 77, in the published version, which is thought to include only some of the notes Beethoven himself extemporized in 1808.  Biss put in enough flash to light the darkest cave in the underworld. This pianist is an artist to watch out for — and read. Check out his hilarious autobiographical note.

Finally, at 11:15 p.m., everyone but Mattila returned to the stage for Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, plus two additional soloists from the chorus, mezzo Brielle Marina Neilson and baritone Matthew Peterson. Heard on its own in a recording, the work strikes one even today as ungainly and freakish. But in context, as a summation of an astounding collection of works of genius, it made me wish, during the extended and vociferous curtain calls, to step into a time machine headed for Vienna in December of 1808, and put on long underwear.

Jeff Dunn writes regularly for San Francisco Classical Voice.

Vienna's Theater an der Wien is where the Academy concert, a benefit for Beethoven, took place.
Theater an der Wien is where the Academy concert, a benefit for Beethoven, took place on a chilly December evening.