Beethoven Fest continues with a spirited Second and a mixed “Eroica”

Sun Jun 06, 2010 at 1:02 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

It would be difficult to pinpoint the dawn of the Romantic era, but the blast of the two massive chords that opened Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony at its premiere in 1805 surely qualifies.

With Beethoven’s vast Symphony No. 3 music entered a new era, the form vaulting from a light Rococo entertainment to an audacious and imposing 50-minute canvas imbued with the composer’s personal vision as well as reflecting the roiling historical times (Beethoven famously dedicated the symphony to Napoleon, then forcefully excised the line from his score.)

The Eroica was the main offering Saturday night at Orchestra Hall in the second program of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival.

The stylistic handprints that characterized Bernard Haitink’s opening program were again in evidence Saturday. Rarely will one encounter such transparent sonorities, refined ensemble and seamless virtuosity; the CSO is ending the season with some of their finest playing of the year.

There was plenty to admire in this Eroica: Haitink’s bracing yet never breathless tempos, a vital and rambunctious Scherzo—with nimble and fluent horn work by Daniel Gingrich and James Smelser in the Trio—and the vividly characterized finale, rising to a majestic, blazing coda.

Yet, for all the tonal refinement and bravura, I found this Eroica decidedly mixed. While unfailingly polished, the opening movement proved  a bit anonymous, lacking tension and an essential Romantic spirit. So too in the funeral march, for all the surface elegance and Haitink’s skillful pacing, the performance was wanting in intensity, gliding over the music’s depth of expression and desolation.

Surprisingly it was the Second Symphony, heard on the first half, that offered the more consistent performance.

Haitink can seem a bit stolid at times in Beethoven’s lighter works–as with the Eighth Symphony Wednesday night. But this performance of the Second was pure pleasure, elegant and detailed, but capturing the quicksilver Haydenesque spirit of the music delightfully. The Larghetto was the highlight, flowing and piquant with the lightly sprung playing communicating the music’s gracious relaxed charm.

Guest clarinetist Patrick Messina from the Orchestre National de France  looked very comfortable sitting amid the CSO winds, and provided exemplary playing, exchanging phrases with Mathieu Dufour and Eugene Izotov like he has been doing so for years.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000.

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