Basel weekend brings varied palette of Beethoven

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Beyond paintings, palettes, and parking and traffic hassles, Art Basel has provided music audiences with some benefits, notably an added New World Symphony program timed to take advantage of last weekend’s cultural tourism.

Artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas led just one-third of the all-Beethoven program, but Sunday’s matinée drew a sizeable crowd to the Lincoln Theatre, who responded enthusiastically to the varied menu of chamber and orchestral Ludwigiana.

 Beethoven’s Piano and Wind Quintet led off the afternoon in a technically assured reading that didn’t feel fluid or interpretively seasoned.  The wind playing was under-characterized, missing out on the quintet’s Haydensque spirit, and balances not entirely worked out. The concluding Rondo came off best, spoilt, unfortunately, by the loud obbligato pop stylings of a clueless balcony patron’s prolonged cell phone ring.

 It’s gratifying to know that even a towering genius like Beethoven could write a piece as bad as Wellington’s Victory. A quickie novelty written to capitalize on the patriotic fervor following Napoleon’s surrender, Wellington’s Victory is the poor man’s 1812 Overture, utilizing French and English airs (Hail Brittania, God Save the Queen) and heavier on noise and stagecraft than musical substance. The work proved wildly successful showing that even in 19th– century Vienna, bad taste ruled the day. The backstory is more interesting than the music: Beethoven fell out with his partner in the scheme who presented numerous out-of-town performances without sharing the profits, and the enraged composer spent years suing the man and publicly vilifying him.

Before turning the podium over to Edward Abrams, Tilson Thomas, in his introductory remarks, made a case for Wellington’s Victory as  a “delightful relic” of its time but even that seems generous. The New World’s presentation indulged the theatricality with Union Jack and French tricolor banners, drummers wearing period hats entering from the back of the hall, and MTT even joining the percussion section to man the musket-fire ratchet.

 Abrams, the New World’s scarily gifted 21-year-old conducting fellow, led a lively yet scrupulous reading that managed to make as valid a case as possible for this post-Revolutionary fluff, playing down the bombast while drawing vital, clear textures.
With the rousing performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, we were safely back on firmer musical ground. Tilson Thomas demonstrated once again why he remains one of our finest Beethoven conductors, with a tautly dramatic  reading in his style, string attacks honed to a razor-sharp point, tempos faultless and superb brass playing.

 There were some fleeting curios, like the over-rambunctious timpani rolls in the Andante and the brass became a bit raucous in the finale. But in general this was a superbly dramatic and thrilling performance. With Tilson Thomas’s Mahler cycle coming to a  close, perhaps his next recording project could be a Beethoven cycle with performances split between San Francisco and Miami Beach. I’d buy it.

Posted in Performances, Uncategorized

One Response to “Basel weekend brings varied palette of Beethoven”

  1. Posted Dec 09, 2008 at 2:06 pm by Ruth Sackner

    We could not get to last Sunday’s concert, but I almost felt I was there reading your review. I look forward to seeing you at Friday’ s concert. It should be great!

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Tue Dec 9, 2008
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