Revelatory Beethoven from Pletnev, Denk in Boca

03.10.09
Jeremy Denk, Russian National Orchestra
Palm Beach Artspaper

BOCA RATON -- We have reached the point as a civilization where you'd think there was absolutely nothing new someone could bring to the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven.

And yet there it was tonight at the Festival of the Arts Boca: A performance of this 205-year-old masterwork that was sometimes head-shakingly odd and textually questionable, but that was overall so sensational that it had your ears on full alert and your eyes on the stage, wondering what was going to come next. It sounded new, it sounded bold, and it sounded revolutionary, and that is exactly what its composer would have wanted.

This reading of the Fifth (in C minor, Op. 67) came courtesy of Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra, the house ensemble of the third annual Festival of the Arts Boca, which continues through Sunday. This is a large, powerful ensemble that must rank among the finer orchestras in the world, and as Pletnev showed earlier in the week with a performance of Beethoven's Second, he's willing to use everything his big band can give him, and that means plush, colorful and high-octane versions of these canonical works.

The major focus of Pletnev's distinctive interpretation of this most familiar of symphonies was in its emphasis on certain motifs in a talismanic way that seized the attention each time. In the first movement, it was the horn call that introduces the major-key contrasting theme; in the second it was the cadential, falling, four-note-scale-plus-triplet that ties up the melody. In both cases, Pletnev practically stopped the proceedings, dragging out the motifs so that they sounded less like musical moments than utterances from an oracle.

Which I suppose was the point, because in the second movement especially, he made sure to do it every time, even though it's arguable that the last appearance or two of the motif compromised the music's forward motion. But there was so much else to admire here, such as the vast dynamic range Pletnev insisted on, which was most striking in the softest passages such as the repeated winds-and-strings back-and-forth on the same minor chord, perfectly preparing the listener for the drama to come.

Then, too, was the sheer virtuosity of this orchestra, the lower strings blazing through the fugal passage that follows the initial C major blast of the finale, and easily brushing off all of the usual stumbling blocks in the symphony everywhere else. Mention should also be made of the nearly Brucknerian approach to the brass parts, especially in the finale, where the big perorations of the music were drenched with trumpet, horn and trombone color, an effect that pushed the work's sonic identity 50 years into the future.

It was an exceptional presentation, full of power and majesty, tremendous light and sepulchral dark, and even though I couldn't agree with some of the choices Pletnev made, it was in every important sense an original rethinking of the Fifth. That it owed some of that to an older tradition of Beethoven performance, and some to a specifically Russian heart-on-sleeve tradition, doesn't take away from its audacity, or its success.

The concert opened with another excellent Beethoven performance, that of the Fifth Piano Concerto (in E-flat, Op. 73, Emperor), with the fine American pianist Jeremy Denk as the soloist. Denk, a frequent accompanist for Joshua Bell, is a standout technician who plays with a sort of cool-temperature flash, rolling out his scale patterns with gratifying evenness and clarity.

Although its pianistic difficulties are substantial, the Emperor is also a symphonic rather than a display concerto, and while Denk has a full mastery of the work's big-hearted virtuosity, he was also admirable in the little details, and this made him a first-rate partner for Pletnev and the RNO. In the first movement, for example, he played the second iteration of the descending triplet motif with a sharp decrescendo each time, a tiny stylistic wink that dovetailed perfectly with the orchestra's aggressive response.

Denk played with a lovely sense of serene near-detachment in the beautiful slow movement, letting his rippling figurations murmur like placid water, and in the main theme of the third movement, played the little downward chromatic part of the theme with a light snap, as opposed to the sliding effect you often hear in other performances. That also worked well with the orchestral approach, which exaggerated short staccato notes throughout, in the first movement punching them in nail-gun fashion.

That Denk is more of a collaborative pianist than a high-profile one does not detract from the assured artistry of his playing. What it might have lacked in the showboat category it gained in that of sheer musicianship, a quality that is much better-suited for the Emperor Concerto in any case.

Although tonight's concert was nominally all-Beethoven, it opened with a late addition, a brief curtain-raiser written in honor of the 75th birthday of the composer and oil-fortune heir Gordon Getty. Composed by Luna Pearl Woolf, who introduced the work and paid tribute to Getty, who was in the audience, the 75th Fanfare is a well-crafted piece of orchestral music that displayed a good ear for effective color.

Woolf  said the music was based on themes from Getty's pieces, and there were moments in the music -- an English horn solo, and another one on trumpet -- that suggested what they were. The piece was appropriately celebratory in parts with more or less traditional brass statements, and more evocative in others, particularly as the strings wandered moodily underneath that English horn.

Since Getty's Plump Jack Overture will be on the Music From the Americas program this Friday at the Boca fest, that would be an ideal time to encore Woolf's fanfare so we can get to know it a little better.