Exploring the Heights with Three Symphonies in C

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Sibelius, Beethoven: San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 16.9.2016. (HS)

Haydn – Symphony No. 69 ‘Laudon’

Sibelius – Symphony No. 3

Beethoven – Symphony No. 5

From Haydn to Sibelius to Beethoven may strike a veteran concert-goer as a circuitous route, but Michael Tilson Thomas knew what he was doing when he programmed the San Francisco Symphony’s second week of subscription concerts. A broad, expansive traversal of Beethoven’s iconic Fifth Symphony preceded an early Haydn example and the Sibelius Third, which echoes the Fifth’s hard-earned voyage from dark and stormy C minor to a sunlit C Major finale.

Did I mention that all three works are in the key of C? Making much of that, Tilson Thomas read aloud from a book he toted on stage at the start of the concert: a compendium of traditional beliefs about the nature of both C Major (simple and happy) and C minor (brooding and menacing).

A more traditional approach might have placed the works in chronological order. After all, the Sibelius and Beethoven symphonies share several key traits, even if the former has more of a 20th-century frame. Sibelius seems more obsessed with leading-seventh (B in the scale of C major) than Beethoven, who makes effective use of the idea but as more of a passing reference. The Finnish composer’s Nordic palette also makes minor-key figures dance instead of brood, producing less angst than Beethoven.

There are several reasons that Beethoven’s Fifth acquired the nickname “Victory.” For one the familiar opening four-note motto that recurs throughout is the same pattern as the “dot-dot-dot-dash” of the letter “V” in Morse code. But there is also struggle, from the foreboding of C minor to utter euphoria of the finale’s straightforward tune and fanfares.

Tilson Thomas seemed more interested in creating majesty by emphasizing the space around the notes, honoring every fermata and rest. He also kept a deliberate pace. It didn’t exactly drag, but the horse had a tight rein on it to prevent it from galloping.

A benefit was a chance to savor Beethoven’s compositional genius at every turn in the opening movement. The second movement arrived at a slighter quicker pace than usual, which was refreshing, followed by a scherzo that relished the way every iteration of the rhythmic motto tightened the screws. In the finale, the payoff for all that striving could have been bigger if the tempo had not held back. It was almost as if Tilson Thomas wanted to say things are not so joyous as they may seem.

Placing the Sibelius before the Beethoven amplified that struggle. Sibelius invests a Scandinavian dour edge by circling back to B in the melody, almost always falling back down the scale before things finally settle into a solid C major chord at the very end.

Frankly I enjoyed the orchestra’s work in the Sibelius more. In the first movement, the strings dug into the low and mid-range melodic gestures to create a rich warmth that pushed against the Nordic chill. The second movement nocturne, which starts was a gentle dance, drifted into restlessness that carried over into the scherzo-like beginning of the finale. The appearance of a chorale in the strings seamlessly energized into the brass, tentative at first, becoming more insistent until they landed on that final C major chord.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 69 ‘Laudon’ made a tasty opener, demonstrating how C major got its reputation for simplicity and happiness. The orchestra’s playing was marked by crisp, clean attacks and deft rhythmic vitality.

Harvey Steiman

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