Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In review--A Hero's Journey into the Unknown

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas
Emanuel Ax (piano)
Beethoven Symphony No. 5 and Piano Concerto No. 4
SFS Media/Harmonia Mundi

If I had the chance to interview the late Joseph Campbell, I would have asked him about Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. After all, fate knocking at the door followed by a quest into darkness with the eventual emergence into triumph is what Campbell would have labeled, “a hero’s journey.” For Beethoven fate came knocking at the door alright. During the four years it took to write this short and powerful symphony, his hearing deteriorated, he suffered from a finger infection that could have destroyed his career (antibiotics weren’t discovered yet, infections could turn into gangrene…), the woman he loved married another man, and Napoleon occupied Vienna.

And yet, the first movement that swayed under the weight of its anger and frustration, also supplies listeners with a few angelic interludes. But the strings burst in anger, the horns rant, and the thundering timpani rages. The fate that knocked at Beethoven’s door wasn’t welcomed, but the composer also didn’t shrink from the challenges fate placed on his doorstep. Instead, he took insufferable experiences (a musician losing his hearing for instance), and composed one of the most, if not the most powerful pieces of music ever. It’s not a coincidence that we’ve all heard this symphony. We recognize the famous 4 note phrase and it unnerves us, which it should. We too stand on the brink of change and fate knocks on the door of humanity. But what will we choose to do with our collective anger and frustration? Will we take Beethoven’s lead or collapse under the weight?

I’ve heard several versions of this symphony and I honestly can’t tell the difference between them. However, I enjoy San Francisco’s live concert where the symphony is paired with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, Emanuel Ax on piano. Beethoven composed the symphony and the concerto during the same period and judging from all the work composed during these years mentioned in the liner notes, Beethoven didn’t waste any time. Perhaps with the deterioration of his hearing, he felt the clock ticking and the public wanting. And the symphony and the piano concerto present striking contrasts.  However, the 3rd movement of the piano concerto share the bold strokes of the first movement of the 5th Symphony.

While the symphony possesses anger alternating with regal and militaristic phrases, the piano concerto possesses sweetness and falls on the pastoral side, at least the first two movements. In the liner notes, we learn that Beethoven found solace in the natural world during this otherwise painful time of his life, and those reflections of the nature come through in this concerto. I can see myself walking through a meadow and near a bubbling brook while listening to this piece.

Not only that, beauty intermingles with complexity allowing a sensitive pianist to show off virtuosity (both athleticism and emotional coloring). Emanuel Ax certainly meets the challenge and delivers a stunning performance. And I don’t know, but maybe after hearing two recordings of Piano Concerto No. 4 in the past few months, I might claim it as a favorite. What’s not to like? The concerto (which last 34 minutes), contains drama, excitement, grace, beauty, and dexterity. Beethoven knew how to entertain in the 19th century and that entertainment value still flourishes.

http://www.sfsymphony.org/ and http://www.harmoniamundi.com/

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