By Lawrence Budmen 

The weather was often precarious during the 2008 Tanglewood season. Rain and the chilly mist over the mountainous hills of the Berkshires often made summer feel more like late fall. (Some evenings the temperatures bordered between the high 40’s and low 50’s.) For the final all Beethoven weekend, however, the gods smiled benevolently as lovely, sunny days and coolly pleasant evenings provided a congenial context for the immortal music of the master from Bonn. Four symphonies and an all too rarely played Mass brought huge crowds to the acoustically superb Koussevitzky Music Shed amidst the lush greenery of the large campus in Lenox, Massachusetts, USA. 

Concluding the festivities with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony has become a Tanglewood tradition. While numerous conductors have taken their turn at this ever remarkable masterpiece in this pastoral setting, it would be hard to equal (much less better) the inspired performance led by Christoph von Dohnanyi on August 24, 2008. Formerly music director of the great Cleveland Orchestra and presently principal conductor of Hamburg’s NDR Orchestra and principal conductor emeritus of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, Dohnanyi is a true podium master. His inspired interpretation of Beethoven’s final symphony defined great conducting. The resident Boston Symphony Orchestra offered playing of crystalline warmth, smoothness and precision. 

Dohnanyi captured the mystery of the score’s opening chords, building a crescendo of overwhelming heft and impact. High drama marked the first movement’s volatile changes of mood and dynamics. (At an open rehearsal the previous day, Dohnanyi spent considerable time working on dynamic contrasts. His Beethoven had a wide dynamic range, instead of the all too usual generalized lack of variety. He clearly understands the importance of Beethoven’s dynamic markings.) Contrapuntal lines were delineated with remarkable clarity and laser precision. Above all the veteran conductor brought a grand sense of the movement’s architectural boldness which can sound diffuse in lesser hands.

A riveting, taut reading of the Scherzo featured an unusually elegant trio section, lovingly shaped by the conductor. The slow movement channeled Mendelssohnian lyricism and flow; the boldly dramatic interruptions were all the more disturbing. All of this incandescent music making was a prelude to a profoundly moving, deeply humane performance of the magnificent choral-vocal finale. Again Dohnanyi’s sense of structure was impeccable. The superb Tanglewood Festival Chorus (splendidly prepared by John Oliver) produced mellifluous, exquisitely proportioned dynamic shadings; yet the climactic moments of this Ode to Joy and brotherhood were voiced with vociferous enthusiasm. A first rate vocal quartet complemented the outstanding choral-orchestral component. Soprano Christiane Oelze soared radiantly in tones of limpid beauty, ably seconded by the admirable solidity of Finnish mezzo Lilli Paasikivi. Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser’s clarion declamation and vocal power sent the alla Marcia tenor solo soaring. (Kaiser scored impressively last season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera as Romeo in Gounod‘s opera – substituting for Rolando Villazon – opposite the acclaimed Juliet of Anna Netrebko.) Hanno Muller-Brachman’s richly mellow bass dazzled in gleaming bel canto form. A long, richly deserved ovation capped a great recreation of Beethoven’s timeless masterpiece and the Tanglewood season. 

The previous evening (August 23) Dohnanyi captured both the Haydnesque classicism and the wit and brusque humor of Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony. Conducting the opening Adagio molto – Allegro con brio with the verve and relentless thrust of Toscanini, Dohnanyi also conjured tenderness and flowing lyricism in the Larghetto. The Scherzo danced in light hearted rustic fashion and there was power, brio and wry humor in the finale with virtuosic playing by the Bostonians from first note to last. In a lifetime of concert going, this was the best performance of this symphony in this writer’s experience. 

The conductor’s vision of the 3rd Symphony (the Eroica) was epic and masterful. The thrusting energy of the first movement immediately suggested that this was going to be no ordinary Eroica. Dohnanyi summoned lithe clarity of inner textures in the Marcia funebre, conducting the score in sprawling paragraphs rather than disconnected phrases. The Scherzo was truly Allegro vivace, Dohnanyi summoning bracing vigor with splendid musicianship from the horns in the trio. A magnificent finale synthesized songful lyricism and headlong drive in a performance that did not neglect Beethoven’s formal rigor. For once, the coda did not come as an anticlimax. 

On August 22 an all too rare performance of Beethoven’s remarkable Mass in C Major touched the sublime. Under the musically probing direction of that consummate artist Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, the joyous Gloria and eloquent Credo glowed with inspiration. The final prayer for peace of the Agnus Dei was sublimely articulated and never timelier. With Oliver’s chorus bringing subtle artistry to Beethoven’s fiery vistas and dulcet whispers, Fruhbeck de Burgos shaped this wonderful score with surges of introspection and celebratory exhilaration. The purity of Oelze’s soprano, shining radiance of Kristine Jepson’s mezzo, lyrical grace of Richard Croft’s tenor, and mellow depth of Muller-Brachman’s bass-baritone contributed to a capital performance.

Fruhbeck de Burgos’ invigorating traversal of the 5th Symphony set the crowd cheering and the music shed ringing. Here was an admirably bracing, revisionist performance that brought fresh life to every bar of this most over played of Beethoven symphonies. From a bracing opening movement to a soaring, resplendent Andante and a hard driving finale, Fruhbeck de Burgos illuminated Beethoven’s restless journey from despair to triumph. Indeed triumph was the keynote of Tanglewood’s salute to one of music’s greatest creative geniuses!


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