LA Phil digs into early Beethoven, explores what is immortal

10.02.15
Simone Porter
Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is calling its cycle of Beethoven's nine symphonies, which Gustavo Dudamel began Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, "Immortal Beethoven." That may not be an exaggeration. So far, at least, Beethoven's symphonies do not die.

In fact, Beethoven symphony performances have become all but inescapable. Besides Dudamel's Beethoven symphony cycle, the Utah Symphony began one last month and the Minnesota Symphony launches a cycle on New Year's Eve. Simon Rattle is in the midst of a sold-out series with the Berlin Philharmonic, which he will bring to Carnegie Hall in November.

It is a rare orchestra anywhere that will not play at least one Beethoven symphony this season. In Southern California, we have a Beethoven freeway series this weekend, since the Pacific Symphony began its new season in Costa Mesa on Thursday with the first of four performances of Beethoven's Ninth.

All of that made Thursday's opener of the early First and Second symphonies with the L.A. Phil a relatively modest affair rather than a reliable indication of what will follow in this cycle. Written for a small orchestra, the first symphonies begin to expand on the agreeable classical symphonic model of Haydn. With the Third (the "Eroica"), Beethoven exploded that model into something radically new and powerful.

Dudamel relied on more strings than Beethoven would have had on hand, although the orchestra was nevertheless reduced to a chamber band. But Dudamel's approach was to dig deep into what made Beethoven. He made no attempt to have modern instruments mimic the tart sounds of older ones (the timpani were, though, period).

The textures of the L.A. Phil were luxuriant, the playing smooth and gorgeous. Balances were exquisitely handled. Tempos were slower than what Beethoven asked for (his insanely fast metronome markings are controversial, since they were added after the composer had become deaf).

In the First Symphony, harmonies that might once have startled now had a rich expressivity verging on world-weariness. The Andante was less gentlemanly gavotte than wistful dance. But gripping propulsion and rhythmic élan supplied excitement to the outer movements.

The more substantial Second Symphony lost some of its playfulness. Beethoven was at the early, freaked-out stage of coming to terms with his impending deafness, and the high-spirited Second can be heard as an essay in denial. Dudamel made it tight, touching and, in the Scherzo and Finale, powerful.

Innocence was reserved for elsewhere. Dudamel filled out the program with Beethoven's two violin romances. These pleasingly sweet slow movements for violin and orchestra were played by Simone Porter, a 19-year-old student at the Colburn Conservatory. Her assured, lovingly lyrical, occasionally frisky playing only confirmed what is becoming common knowledge in the musical world: that she is on the cusp of a major career.
 
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