Beethoven’s World Features Rare Berwald Symphony

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Berwald, Liszt, Rossini: Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Canton Symphony Orchestra, Umstattdt Hall, Canton, Ohio, 25.3.2017. (TW)

Beethoven: Die Ruinen Von Athen (The Ruins of Athens), Overture andTurkish March” (1811)

Berwald: Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Sinfonie singuliére (1845)

Liszt: Les Préludes (1848)

Rossini: William Tell Overture (1829)

On this program titled “Beethoven and His Contemporaries,” Gerhardt Zimmermann and Canton Symphony Orchestra began with the Overture and “Turkish March,” Beethoven’s popular 1811 incidental music for a play called Die Ruinen Von Athen (The Ruins of Athens). Absent is the darker expressivity of strings in many of the composer’s later works. Instead, the winds, particularly the wistful and sprightly oboe in the Overture, are the reigning voices. The ensemble was vivacious in the march, evoking a palpable air of adventure.

That same energy made a riveting performance of Franz Berwald’s Symphony No. 3, which like the rest of the program – Liszt’s Les Préludes and Rossini’s Overture To William Tell – was composed after Beethoven’s death. With three movements rather than the traditional four, Berwald’s Romantic masterpiece takes a cue from Beethoven’s tone painting, and felt like a slowly unfolding journey. Amid constant thematic ebbs and flows, there is the equipoise of stϋrm und drang and poignant contemplation. The playfulness between strings and woodwinds displays Berwald’s gifts as orchestrator.

So it is surprising that this symphony – a favorite of Zimmermann, as he explained in his introductory comments – is rarely performed live, and his passion for it was not misplaced. The orchestra responded in kind, with brilliant, detailed articulation of of Berwald’s intricate colors and textures. The ensemble was particularly gripping during the finale, a grand bit of jubilation that clearly elated the audience.

Before Liszt’s Les Préludes, Zimmermann related a story of the 11-year-old composer meeting Beethoven, and playing the latter’s first Piano Concerto. Beethoven was moved to say, “You go on ahead. You are one of the lucky ones! It will be your destiny to bring joy and delight to many people and that is the greatest happiness one can achieve.”

As if taking that prophetic declaration to heart, the orchestra proceeded to “go on ahead” with an enchanting embodiment of Liszt’s poetry. Following the lush first section, “moods of spring and love,” and the “storms of life” described in the second, the third section featured lilting phrases passed from harp to oboe, to clarinet and flute. A mesmerizing “peaceful idyll” set the stage for the explosive finale, with a protracted, triumphal burst of brass, causing a boisterous standing ovation.

An invigorated Zimmermann addressed the audience once more, with a reminder that Beethoven was not blessed with a bubbly personality, much less a bevy of real friends. When he and Rossini met in Vienna, Beethoven offered his assessment of the Overture to William Tell: “…opera seria is ill-suited to the Italians. You do not know how to deal with real drama.”

Had he lived just a few more years, Beethoven might have appreciated just how serious Rossini could be. As the longest and most sparkling achievement in the realm of operatic overtures, it has become a universal meme for dawn, storm, bucolic peace, and martial heroism – and a certain masked avenger. The orchestra played with electrifying vigor, starting with the cellos’ reverence ushering in the sunrise, followed by swirling woodwinds and strings calling forth the violent brassy storm. Calm came from the English horn, before the unforgettable trumpet alarm and ensuing gallop, all breathtaking.

Tom Wachunas

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