Arts & Events

A Beethoven Marathon at San Francisco Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday June 27, 2015 - 11:57:00 PM

On Saturday, June 20, San Francisco Symphony recreated the famous marathon concert given by Beethoven on December 22, 1808, at Vienna’s Theater-an-der-Wien. In this Akademie, or public as opposed to courtly concert, which lasted well over four hours, Beethoven presented the first performances of his 5th and 6th Symphonies, his 4th Piano Concerto, his Fantasy for Piano (Opus 77), and his Choral Fantasy (Opus 80), as well as his previously performed concert aria “Ah! perfido,” plus three movements from his already ill-received C major Mass. As Jacob Reichardt wrote in a letter, “There we sat from 6:30 till 10:30 in the most bitter cold, and found by experience that one might have too much of a good thing.” 

In giving this concert, a ‘benefit’ concert (the financial ‘benefit’ accruing to the performer), Beethoven hoped, above all, to earn money. He also took this occasion to acquaint the Viennese public with his accomplishments in a wide variety of musical genres. Where money is concerned, this concert was a failure. Few tickets were sold, and lord knows how many of those who attended stayed till the bitter end. Where establishing Beethoven as a multi-talented composer is concerned, the immediate results of this concert were bleak. It was not even reviewed. (As is well-known, Beethoven was often lacking in practical business matters and simple common sense.) 

Opening the San Francisco Symphony program was Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6 in F major, Opus 68. This work, of course, offers a heartfelt paean to Nature. It also offers a kind of ‘program’ consisting of musical descriptions of a variety of experiences one might encounter in Nature. However, as Maynard Solomon writes, “In composing the Pastoral Symphony Beethoven was not anticipating Romantic program music but rather was continuing in the Baroque pastoral tradition, as manifested in many works by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and more particularly in Haydn’s two oratorios.”  

The “Pastoral” Symphony opens by evoking the joy of arriving in the country. This movement features sweeping, ebullient music. Next comes a “Scene by the brook,” featuring a softly flowing melody which gets traded back and forth by violins and violas. Toward the end of this Andante molto mosso movement come birdcalls, heard in oboe, clarinet, and flute, imitating the calls of nightingale, cuckoo and quail. The third movement offers a “Village Festival” featuring peasant dances and a caricature of a village band. Suddenly, without a pause between movements, a thunderstorm erupts, putting an end to the villagers’ merrymaking. A trumpet blasts, the cellos and double-basses growl, and the timpani announces thunder claps. But the storm is soon over, and without a pause the final movement offers a “Shepherd’s Song,” first suggested by the clarinet, then taken up by the horns, and finally realized by the first violins – all expressing thanks for deliverance from the brief storm. As played by the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas, this was as deeply satisfying a performance of the “Pastoral” Symphony as I have heard in recent years.  

Next on the program was Beethoven’s concert aria “Ah! perfido,” sung by Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. Surprisingly, at least to this listener, “Ah! perfido” was in many ways the highlight of this long evening. Karita Mattila’s vocal artistry was absolutely astounding! She tore into the opening recitative, passionately expressing the wounded rage of a woman scorned by her beloved. Her fury knew no bounds, as Mattila unleashed one hurt and vengeful diatribe after another, taking pleasure in the thunderbolts from heaven she hoped would strike her perfidious lover wherever he went. In the aria that follows the recitative, Mattila sang with unerring precision, hitting the high notes squarely on the mark and effortlessly handling the demanding, quick-moving passages in scales. All the while she infused this Mozartian aria by Beethoven with the utmost emotional conviction. At the close of this work, the Davies Hall audience erupted in wild and much-deserved applause for Karita Mattila. 

After the first of three intermissions, we heard the Kyrie and Gloria from Beethoven’s Mass in C major, Opus 86, from 1807. This liturgical work had been poorly received by its intended patron, Prince Esterhazy, at its debut in Eisenstadt in 1807. In San Francisco, in spite of fine singing by the soloists, especially mezzo-soprano Abigail Nims and bass-baritone Shenyang, ably assisted by soprano Nikki Einfeld and tenor Nicholas Phan, these excerpts seemed to me utterly without interest, mere filler in a concert already overfull. 

Next came Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto, the G major, Opus 58, from 1806, which received its first performance at the 1808 marathon concert in Vienna. Here in San Francisco, the 4th Piano Concerto featured pianist Jonathan Biss. It opens, sur-prisingly, with the solo piano rather than the orchestra initiating the opening theme. This is not the only surprise element. As Charles Rosen notes, “In the first movement the final trills of the exposition, recapitulation, and cadenza are radically new. Not only do none of these trills ever reach the expected resolution, but they lead directly into one of the most expressive themes of the movement.” Eventually, this movement develops into an elaborate cadenza written out by Beethoven and here played by pianist Jonathan Biss, who demonstrated his formidable technique and thinking-man’s approach to Beethoven. 

The second movement of the 4th Piano Concerto, an Andante, consists of a dialogue of equals between the solo instrument and the orchestra. The orchestra opens defiantly; the piano offers soft tones of searching resignation. This dialogue continues at intervals in stern, unchanging forte throughout half of the movement. Meanwhile, the piano offers sweet fragments of melody and harmony, occasionally rising to momentary exultation. Eventually subdued, the orchestra seems to capitulate, as if acknowledging its defeat. The concluding Rondo opens with the solo piano announcing a bouncy first theme. After the orchestra takes up this theme, the piano introduces the second subject, and this material dominates the rest of the movement, ending in a brilliant coda that closes the work in presto fashion. As soloist, Jonathan Biss played this work with impressive technical control and emotional intensity. Having never heard this young American pianist before, although he has performed worldwide and released many recordings, I was very favorably impressed with his playing. 

After a second intermission, the concert offered Beethoven’s monumental 5th Symphony in C minor, Opus 67. So familiar is this work to us now that we may find it difficult to appreciate all that was new in this symphony when it was first heard in Vienna’s marathon concert in December 1808. The drama of the first movement – indeed, of the entire symphony – is built up almost entirely out of the famous rhythmic pattern of the opening four notes – three short notes, one long one, which we hear twice at the outset. They reappear again and again in this work, accum-ulating power and drive at every repetition. Is it, as Beethoven allegedly once re-marked, “Fate knocking at the door”? Perhaps. In any case, there is assuredly some-thing implacable about this opening movement, which develops with a single-minded inevitability. As J,W.N. Sullivan notes, “In this movement there is one dominating mood from first to last. Even the little oboe solo serves only to heighten the tension.” 

The second movement, a slow Andante, opens with violas and cellos playing a melancholy melody. A second subject appears in clarinets and bassoons, and Beethoven varies now the first now the second theme. The third movement, a grotesque scherzo, begins with a mysterious and foreboding theme in the cellos and basses. Horns then take up the theme, which has the same rhythmic pattern as the celebrated opening notes of the first movement. A trio follows, offering an onrushing, savage theme, begun in the basses, taken up by the violas, then carried to the second and first violins respectively. The trio over, bassoons play the work’s opening notes, repeated by the clarinets, and, finally, by the kettledrums. Now, without a pause, the final movement bursts forth in a blaze of glory. Thus, the overall unity of the 5th Symphony is emphasized by the seamless passage from the coda of the third move-ment to the opening, without a break, of the glorious finale, which ends with a strikingly optimistic turn to the bright C major. As conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, this was a scintillating rendition of Beethoven’s great 5th Symphony. 

After a third (and final) intermission, the program offered more filler, this time the Sanctus from Beethoven’s Mass in C major. (Incidentally, it was Beethoven himself who inadvisably separated the Kyrie and Gloria movements of the C major Mass, heard earlier, from the Sanctus movement.) As was the case with the earlier movements, while appreciating the singing of the soloists, I found this liturgical music uninteresting and tepid. If I stayed for this final section of the marathon concert, it was largely to hear the next piece, a ten-minute Piano Fantasy, Opus 77, often cited as offering the closest approximation we might obtain of how Beethoven himself improvised at the piano in public. As played here by pianist Jonathan Biss, this work exhibited a remarkable emotional range, moving quickly from strenuous outbursts of something like rage to quiet moments of wondrous serenity. If it reminded me of anything at all, it was Beethoven’s late work for piano, entitled “Rage over a Lost Penny,” Opus 129, which undergoes similar transitions back and forth from fury to calm, then back again.  

As for the marathon’s final work, The Choral Fantasy, Opus 80, it must be noted that this piece came a cropper when played at the Vienna concert in 1808, where Beethoven had to interrupt the piece and start it all over again. Mind you, this was the final work in a concert already four hours long! For my part, I simply lacked the patience or the curiosity to stay for this rarely heard piece. To paraphrase Jacob Reichardt, there was simply too much of a good – or perhaps not uniformly good – thing. So, even leaving twenty minutes early, I still barely made it home to Berkeley before midnight after a marathon concert that began at 7:00.