Finding Beethoven’s Moods Hidden Between the Lines

08.14.11
Jeremy Denk
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

Just as you can put on a brave face to conceal your suffering, composers sometimes write works whose cheeriness belies a tortured state of mind. Beethoven began composing his vivacious Eighth Symphony in the summer of 1812, when he was enduring a painful affair of the heart with the woman he called "Immortal Beloved."

But there is barely a hint of heartache in this jovial symphony, which the musicologist Charles Rosen has described as one of the last 19th-century works to convey "the civilized gaiety of the Classical period." Louis Langrée, as part of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival, conducted the festival orchestra in an ebullient reading on Friday evening at Avery Fisher Hall, concluding a Beethoven program that balanced the composer's lighthearted Classicism with stormier Romanticism.

Echoes of the civilized realms of Mozart and Haydn can also be heard in Beethoven's youthful Piano Concerto No. 2 (actually written before what is called No. 1). Mr. Langrée conducted a taut, vividly etched rendition with the pianist Jeremy Denk as soloist. Mr. Denk's characterful, vibrant playing, warm touch and fluid articulation were heard to fine effect throughout and particularly impressive in the first movement cadenza.

Beethoven broke ties with the Classical period with his final piano sonata, the mystical Opus 111. Mr. Denk offered an intensely committed interpretation in a preconcert recital on Friday. He had been scheduled to play John Adams's "Phrygian Gates" but said from the stage that a hectic schedule had prevented him from preparing it adequately, and that he had decided to substitute the Beethoven to fit with the evening's theme.

Two works in the main concert explored the heroic side of Beethoven. Mr. Langrée opened with Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 2, one of four overtures he composed for prospective new productions of this opera, eventually retitled "Fidelio." Mr. Langrée elicited sharply etched phrasing and plenty of tension in the strings in a convincingly dramatic interpretation of this moody piece, which is punctuated by a trumpet call rendered here by a player high in the balcony.

The drama continued with "Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?" ("Abominable one! Where are you going?") from "Fidelio." Leonore, the heroine, has disguised herself as a young man to rescue her husband, a political prisoner, from jail. She voices her despair in this anguished aria decrying his fate and declaring her love. The dramatic soprano Christine Brewer wielded her huge, rich voice to potent effect, although her steely high notes veered toward stridency.