Review: “More Light! More Light!” Morlot and the Seattle Symphony tackle Beethoven’s Fifth
24th March, 2017
It would be interesting to know how many audience members comprising the very full house for this performance were hearing their first-ever live Beethoven Fifth. Even for aficionados, the encounter was unusual. Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony created a boldly original framework in which to present the Fifth Symphony, their account of which also marked the conclusion to a two-year cycle of the complete symphonies and piano concertos.
The emphatically telos-oriented Fifth hammers home its own conclusion so forcefully that one of the biggest challenges a performance poses is how to arrive there convincingly. (In the parody of “finding an ending” he stages in his Eighth Symphony, Beethoven wrote some of the most hilarious music ever conceived.)
Morlot, always a creatively provocative programmer, came up with the idea of prefacing the Fifth with Bohuslav Martinů’s 1943 Memorial to Lidice – a compact threnody to the victims of the mass murder in 1942, in which the Nazis leveled a Czech village near Prague in reprisal for the assassination of a notorious SS commander. Martinů, having escaped from Paris to the United States in 1940, responded to the atrocity with music that blends elegy and defiance.
Morlot underscored the weighty solemnity of the score’s dark, grief-stricken harmonies, while pained utterances from the winds added glints of colour. Along with quoting a famous hymn to the Czech patron St Wenceslaus, Martinů cites the Fifth’s “Fate” motto near the end, just as his music approaches its despairing climax. His quote actually begins with the horn’s statement of the motto, which traces a minor third, rather than the strings’ famous iteration at the outset of the Fifth. But the rhythmic pattern is the same. The Allies had of course adopted this as a symbol of coming victory – Beethoven’s “three dots and a dash” in Symphony V construed as the “V” of Morse code.
Without allowing applause to separate the pieces, Morlot then launched immediately into the Beethoven. Treating Memorial to Lidice as a preludial “extra movement” was intended both to ratchet up the tension and to intensify the sense of oppressive darkness from which the Fifth must struggle to find the light. (The brief hint of redemptive hope in Martinů’s final measures is so brief that a return to the tragic mode was entirely plausible.)
There was nothing particularly radical about Morlot’s interpretive choices within the Fifth itself: no excessive fermatas, prolonged pauses, or eccentric tempi. Instead, everything was geared towards conveying the immediacy of Beethoven’s expression without excess or exaggeration. Along with his characteristic care for timbral balance and clean articulation, Morlot coaxed a chamber music-like close listening from the SSO in numerous details (the woodwind variants of the Andante theme, the sotto voce suspense of the bridge to the finale, which evoked a subterranean musical passageway).
The experiment with the Martinů paid off in other ways I hadn’t quite expected. The finale, after the excitement of its initial outburst, can sound routine – even tawdry – in its repetitious C major triumphalism. But with reminiscences of the threnody still lingering (musically and historically), the shadows that accumulate in the development and the brief return of the Scherzo felt more emotionally fraught.
The first half of the concert paired Beethoven’s Overture to the early ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, its exultant coda a premonition of the Fifth, with Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in G major. The composer played at the concerto’s première in Germany in January 1933 (the ominous month at the end of which Hitler took power). As the soloist, Morlot invited the Toulouse-born Bertrand Chamayou, known for his exceptional accounts of Liszt and Ravel. The young pianist was prompted to learn Bartók’s terrifyingly difficult concerto by none other than Pierre Boulez, who asked him to perform it at one of his very last concerts (in Paris in 2011).
Any pianist who can manage Bartók 2 by necessity wields phenomenal technique, but Chamayou matched this with a keen, penetrating intellect and a sophisticated touch, slightly softening the percussive edge so often overdone in this piece. Bartók’s intricate, soloistic writing for the orchestra is part of this concerto’s enormous difficulty, and the conductor needs to play a rather more involved role than is the case for a typical concerto.
Morlot emphasized the brighter, Stravinsky-like contours of the outer movements. Despite some (almost inevitable) moments of acoustical imbalance, the thrilling energy of Bartók’s ideas never flagged. The middle movement’s duologue for piano and timpani (played with character by Matthew Decker) sustained a sense of suspense that held special fascination in the context of the Fifth Symphony, whose dramaturgy of anxious expectation is no less masterful than its affirmation of victory achieved.
24 March 2017
Thomas May / bachtrack