United States Mozart, Stamitz, and Beethoven: Choong-Jin Chang (viola), Philadelphia Orchestra, Paul Goodwin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 10.4.2015 (BJ)
Mozart: Symphony in D major, after the Serenade in D major, K. 320, “Posthorn”
Carl Stamitz: Viola Concerto in D major, Op. 1
Beethoven: Overture, The Consecration of the House, Op. 124
Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60
This one really took me back a long way. One of the finest concerts of the season, it challenged comparison with outstanding memories from the more or less distant past—and emerged fully matching and even arguably outshining them.
In the case of the Stamitz Viola Concerto, it was the glory days of Joseph de Pasquale, principal viola of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1964 to 1996, that the playing of the current occupant of that chair brought to mind. Beethoven’s Consecration of the House overture is a splendid celebratory piece that we hear too rarely, but I remember getting to know and love it from performances conducted by Otto Klemperer back in the 1950s. And the specific memory that Paul Goodwin’s reading of the composer’s Fourth Symphony brought to mind was a performance I heard in Antwerp about fifteen years ago.
“Spectacular viola playing” may sound like an oxymoron, but that is what Choong-Jin Chang gave us in the first of Carl Stamitz’s two concertos for the instrument. All through the 1980s, Joe, one of the three de Pasquale brothers in the orchestra at that time, led the viola section with an awesome richness of tone backed by impeccable technique. Chang possesses both of those qualities, and he is also a more historically aware a performer than his irrepressibly romantic predecessor could ever have claimed to be. Supported by crisp orchestral playing under Goodwin’s incisive baton, he made the strongest possible case for a work that is charming but not especially characterful; some of his spiccato effects took this listener’s breath away. Curiously, this first Philadelphia Orchestra performance of the concerto came only a few months after the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia had played it, but that performance was by no means on the same level as this one.
The afternoon had begun with a four-movement symphony extracted from Mozart’s “Posthorn” Serenade, including a minuet that featured some appropriately bucolic playing of that instrument by David Bilger and a polished solo by David Cramer, whose flute-playing throughout the program was a model of classical purity and grace.
From the very first notes of this work, Goodwin had served notice that he is a conductor of phenomenal gifts. Known especially for his expertise in the field of early music (though he has also recorded some excellent Elgar performances), he showed his colors on this occasion by demanding practically vibrato-less playing from the violins, without descending into the kind of harshness that sometimes results from such execution.
But it was with the Beethoven overture that Goodwin’s mastery first fully made itself felt. Klemperer’s view of the work, with its characteristically Beethoven solemn march, its mysteriously dramatic transition, and its brilliant conclusion along Handelian fugal lines, reflected the spacious stylistic approach of the mid-20th century. Goodwin was altogether more radical, stripping the piece of any trace of pompous rodomontade, and the result was an unbridled and irresistibly intoxicating jamboree.
To go on from that and achieve similarly rousing results with what is often thought of as one of Beethoven’s gentler and more understated symphonies would be an extraordinary achievement, but Goodwin did indeed achieve it. My reference to an Antwerp performance around 2000 stems from the fact that it was given, by the chamber orchestra Nuove Musiche under its talented young music director Eric Lederhandler, in a church that seated not more than about 400 people. The effect of hearing the work in those close quarters was to make me realize more vividly than ever what an impact the symphony must have had on its first audiences, which were accustomed to hearing concerts in such conditions. But Goodwin, astonishingly, was able to create a similar dynamic thrill in the much wider expanses of Verizon Hall.
Eupeptic accounts of the first movement and scherzo surrounded a slow movement paced at a true Adagio that yet, taken at pretty well exactly Beethoven’s metronome marking, never failed to flow. In the abstract, it could be suggested that Goodwin’s athletic tempo for the finale was hardly the “Allegro ma non troppo” the composer called for, but the movement’s bubbly good humor was communicated without any sense of haste, and the clarity of articulation that the strings produced under concertmaster David Kim’s leadership was just one of the many pleasures for an obviously delighted audience.
Add to all this the interest of hearing this particular symphony after this particular overture—for both works feature transitions built on the acceleration of a little upward three-note figure—and you have the picture of a conductor not only capable of giving an unforgettable concert but witty in programming it. For my taste, Maestro Goodwin cannot come back to Philadelphia soon enough.