Opera News
Beethoven: 9 Symphony, Carnegie Hall, 3 October 2007
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Jonas Kaufmann, Melanie Diener, Reinhard Hagen, David Robertson & Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, 10/3/07
Unlike other of the world's finest orchestras that have opened Carnegie Hall's season in the past, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra exists for only a few weeks each summer. At the instigation of Claudio Abbado, the group was built around a core of players from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, with many of the day's most accomplished chamber and orchestral musicians filling out the principal chairs and the string sections. When the Lucerne orchestra opened the current Carnegie season on October 3, it was a shock to see such soloists as Ilya Gringolts and Jacques Zoon mingling with principal players from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic and the Hagen Quartet. But the real shock was the homogeneity of the string sound, which would have been remarkable enough in a standing orchestra but was scarcely believable in a part-time group. In Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, such luxury was welcome in the slow movement, which conductor David Robertson views as a proto-Mahler piece, although it caused the boisterous Scherzo to come across as terribly well behaved. Throughout the evening, there was a passionate physical involvement from every player that is simply not seen in any American orchestra on the Carnegie carousel. These musicians make the New York and Boston players appear to be sedated.

Robertson's Ninth was consistently and persuasively energetic, even in the Adagio. The transition into the trio section of the Scherzo, that notorious loose riser on the conductorial staircase, was deftly and elegantly done. Robertson and tenor Jonas Kaufmann made a truly uplifting moment out of the little march episode of the Finale, where so many conductors have hung so many tenors out to dry. (Robertson sees the metronome mark for the entire measure, not the half measure.) Melanie Diener, not a bit unpleasant in the high-B range, was luxury casting for the soprano part; Reinhard Hagen made a strong, forthright showing in the bass solos. Robertson's climaxes in the first three movements were so large that only the entrance of the chorus could top them. The Westminster Symphonic Choir was numerous enough that there was no need for yelling and no sign of strain.

Abbado had originally been announced as conductor, but his health did not permit it. Another musician who weathered a bout of physical problems, pianist Murray Perahia, was back on form for Beethoven's G-Major Piano Concerto. The first movement, which responds to so many different interpretations, is for Perahia feverish, driven and unsettled in the passagework, like an insomniac's thoughts that rush far ahead of the topic at hand. The exuberance of the third movement turned brittle, perhaps owing to the surfeit of (admittedly elegant) string sound and the glassy tone of the piano's upper register. But even in the slow movement Perahia was straightforward and resolutely pianistic. It was a strong contrast to the orchestral players, who later ended the evening with an enthusiastic round of hand-shaking and kisses on both cheeks among stand partners. I've never seen anything like it in thirty-five years. The last time Beethoven's Ninth opened a New York season, at the Philharmonic in 2002, it seemed to be a demonstration of why we should put the piece away for a long time. The Lucerne players demonstrated why we still need it in our lives.

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