United States Beethoven: André Watts (piano), Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 28-29.3.2015, (TW)
Beethoven: Coriolan Overture
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major
The Creatures of Prometheus, Overture and selections from Act II
Beethoven: 5 Contradances, Wo0 14
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major
Piano Concerto No. 3 in c minor
From its inception, the Canton Symphony Orchestra’s much-anticipated Beethoven Festival, which commenced in March, posed some challenging program questions. Which works could best celebrate the composer’s genius while sating the appetites of his most ardent aficionados? Should the festival, spread across four concerts, be built upon only the symphonies?
Each program includes some of the composer’s five piano concertos, which represent a steady journey into his ever-maturing explorations, to create an edifying mini-survey of Beethoven’s progressive climb toward the monumental Ninth Symphony, which will close the festival on April 26. And who better to lead the piano voyage than Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s colleague and long-time friend, pianist André Watts?
The March 28 concert opened with the Coriolan Overture (1807), its sonata form stormy and compact. In many ways it presages the Sturm und Drang aspects of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, completed in the following year. Here, the string section rose to the occasion with solidity and finesse, flawlessly articulating the tension between two themes—one agitated and bellicose, the other gentle and contemplative.
The orchestra was enchanting in the overture and excerpts from the 1801 ballet Die Geschöpfe Des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus). Particularly remarkable were the lilting, poignant solo passages from Erica Snowden (principal cello) and Randy Klein (principal clarinet) in the Adagio following the overture.
Between these was a step back into Beethoven’s youth. He was 25 when he premiered his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1795 (actually completed before No. 1). While not as musically ambitious as the later concertos, this shortest of the five nonetheless points to the emergence of a fresh and compelling lyricism, especially apparent in the slow movement. Watts navigated its torrents with vigor and clarity.
The following evening began with crisp, sparkling selections from Contradances (1802). For all of its unpretentious charm, dance No. 7 is significant for a theme first encountered in The Creatures of Prometheus, and more notably the finale of the Eroica Symphony.
Watts’s virtuosity from the previous evening remained undiminished, and in fact was substantially augmented, in his performances of Piano Concertos No. 1 (1798) and No. 3 (1803). The slow movement in the First was breathtaking—searingly emotional—as was the third movement in its unrestrained joy. It is in the Third Concerto, however, where Beethoven found a newer substance and interplay with the orchestra, in a significant departure from the influences of Mozart and Haydn.
Interestingly, the only jarring moment came at the end of the slow movement, a transcendent study in solemnity, after which the third movement followed with no pause—and no chance to breathe in or savor the ineffable beauty that had just unfolded. Still, Watts made up for it with the furious joviality of the finale. Watching him play was witnessing an artist physically pour himself into his instrument to draw out the Beethovenian zeitgeist.
At the end, clearly spent yet exuberant, Watts and Maestro Zimmermann engaged in a triumphal hug. This spontaneous gesture of mutual adulation between conductor and soloist prompted me to think that everyone, standing now in boisterous ovation, had been embraced by the spirit of Beethoven himself.