Beethoven Loses to Piazzolla in Seasonal Match

United StatesUnited States  Piazzolla and Beethoven: Elisa Barston (violin), Eva Lucero and Patricio Touceda (tango dancers), Nicole Cabell (soprano), Susan Platts (mezzo-soprano), Clifton Forbis (tenor), Eric Owens (bass), Seattle Symphony Chorale, Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 28.12.2012 (BJ)

Ludwig inserted voices into the symphonic world. Ludovic—different language, same name—responded by adding dance to the concert experience.

Of all the works the Seattle Symphony has come up with as companion pieces for its end-of-year Beethoven Ninth Symphony performances, music by tango specialist Astor Piazzolla might seem the most improbable. But the Argentine composer’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, a tribute both to his country’s capital and to Vivaldi’s famous Four Seasons, made a delightful start to its annual Beethoven-plus concerts (to which, incidentally, Steven Lowe contributed exceptionally intelligent and perceptive program notes).

A little under a half-hour long, it was played in an effective string-orchestra arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov. Ludovic Morlot led a sparkling performance by the orchestra’s strings. Adding to the fun was the contribution of a remarkably attractive pair of tango dancers, Eva Lucero and Patricio Touceda, who realized the latter’s choreography with a grace and intensity that rendered this probably the sexiest performance so far witnessed in Benaroya Hall. Elisa Barston, too, played the virtuoso solo violin part brilliantly, and even took a brief turn dancing—very creditably—with Touceda when the implicit narrative demanded it.

All this seemed like the start of a dream evening, but alas, the other half of the program fell far below expectations. Morlot has, in his 16 months at the head of the orchestra, demonstrated mastery in many areas of the repertoire, and some less familiar ones. But it would be unreasonable to expect a young conductor to be good at everything. Results to date have suggested that Beethoven is not yet his strong suit, and this Ninth Symphony did nothing to dispel that impression.

The trouble was partly textural. Perhaps the idea was to emphasize the work’s 18th-century ancestry. But the extreme lightness of sonority robbed the monumental work of nine-tenths of its grandeur. With only six double-basses and eight cellos on stage, there was a fatal lack of the rich lower-strings foundation that anyone who has ever heard the work played by, say, a master like Wilhelm Furtwängler knows is crucial to its effect—and those speaking recitatives at the start of the finale lacked both eloquence and rhetorical force.

The woodwinds did much excellent work, but any number of orchestral textures, especially those featuring the horns, were skated over, and indeed some horn solos were so outbalanced that they might just as well not have been there. The two themes of the slow movement should move at different speeds, but didn’t; Beethoven’s metronome marks show that the difference is small, but there should surely be a sense that the pulse is changing when the Adagio moves into the Andante.

Of the vocal soloists, bass Eric Owens sang his opening recitative splendidly, but Clifton Forbis’s military-march tenor solo paid insufficient attention to the deliberate breaks in the line. And these two were allowed to sing so loudly in the last solo ensemble that there was no telling whether the soprano hit her top B successfully or not. The Seattle Symphony Chorale, so good in Messiah two weeks earlier, was less convincing this time, its diction often vague: so far from relishing the final consonant of “Kuss,” the ensemble gave us something that sounded like “Kuh”–and I really don’t believe that either Schiller or Beethoven was thinking about cows at this point in the ode.

Such faults will surely be eradicated in the future. Morlot is too gifted—and too serious—an artist to allow his Beethoven to remain for long at so rudimentary a level. But for Piazzolla to overshadow Beethoven so drastically was a disconcerting (no pun intended) turn of events.


Bernard Jacobson


A shorter version of this review appeared in the Seattle Times.