When Beethoven traditions collide—magnificently

By Lawrence A. Johnson

One could hardly wish for a more choice pairing of forces for a memorable Beethoven evening than those assembled Friday at the Arsht Center: conductor Kurt Masur, one of the world’s most distinguished Beethoven exponents, and the Cleveland Orchestra with its storied Beethoven tradition burnished under George Szell’s long tenure.  The results were largely as inspirational as one might expect, with Masur’s no-nonsense approach complementing the Clevelanders’ polish and corporate refinement.

 At 81, Masur remains a vigorous podium, er, floor, presence with his unique style. The German conductor eschews podium, score and baton, feet planted apart, standing close to the front desks, and expressively directing the musicians with his hands.

 Masur represents a traditional Central European approach to Beethoven’s music, big-boned and incisive. Yet like, all great musicians, he can surprise you, as was certainly the case with the opening Lenore Overture No. 3. The longest and most elaborate of the many curtain-raisers Beethoven penned for his opera Fidelio, the  overture often gets short shrift, something to be raced through garrulously before getting to the main event.

 That was not the case Friday night. Masur treated the overture with all the loving detail and glowing refinement of a Debussy tone poem. He took the opening very spaciously but sustained the flow with great flexibility, drawing uncommonly detailed dynamics and nuanced expressive shading from the Cleveland players. Yet there was no lack of drama, with a perfectly placed offstage trumpet call to arms and plenty of excitement in the blazing coda.

While more conventional, the reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was no less involving. Masur’s gruff forcefulness has the characteristics one can imagine Beethoven would have appreciated, but also displays a balancing suppleness and grace. The concentrated control of the sostenuto introduction, and the vitality of the ensuing Vivace were thrilling, horns soaring over the orchestra.

 The famous Allegretto was especially inspired, brooding and atmospheric, and the final Allegro richly underlined Wagner’s take on the music as the “apotheosis of the dance,” a frenzied moto perpetuo whirlwind.  One can quibble that the music could have smiled a bit more, particularly in the Scherzo, but this was indisputably world-class Beethoven playing. The orchestra’s refinement and technical gleam were remarkably airtight, even in the most hard-driving pages.

 Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 served as the centerpiece with Louis Lortie as soloist. The Canadian pianist boasts a diverse and copious CD catalogue, yet without quite carving out a niche as a distinctive individual interpreter.

 So it proved again Friday night with Lortie a polished and efficient presence rather than a stimulating one. The soloist’s playing of the extended first movement was rather faceless, and even the jazz-like syncopated wit of the final Rondo—one of Beethoven’s most delightful inspirations—proved decidedly literal and unsmiling. Lortie began the Adagio with more expressive feeling but the consistent parade of intermittent bronchial outbursts Friday night appeared to distract him, and he seemed to retreat into a let’s-just-get-this-over-with neutrality.

Lortie got little help from a piano sound that was hard-edged and lacking in body, pointing out again the tricky balancing act for piano and orchestra in the Knight Concert Hall.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall,1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami. 305-949-6722; http://arshtcenter.org.

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Sat Mar 7, 2009
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