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Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos Opens the BSO Beethoven Symphony Cycle

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Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Friday, October 23, 1:30 pm
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor (replacing James Levine)

Beethoven, The Complete Symphonies, Program 1:
Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 21
Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

What is sadly no longer James Levine’s traversal of Beethoven’s symphonies began with nothing but joy for the Symphony Hall audience, at least in my impression. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos has been manfully representing the Beethoven symphonies at Tanglewood and at Symphony Hall since 2000, while Ozawa and Levine pursued other interests, and his powerful, rock-solid interpretations of Beethoven surely must be among the achievements which have endeared him to the orchestra and its audiences. His approach is typical of his generation: large in scale and focused on the heroic, Promethean side of the composer, but entirely cleansed of unnecessary expressive mannerisms. His performances have the purity and grandeur of Klemperer without his austerity. He also is meticulous about detail without drawing attention to it. The subtle balances and nuanced phrases are there, but they do not distract us as the performance unfolds. His preference for massing the first and second violins at his left seems old-fashioned today. I was glad to see this 20th century convention go when Levine arrived, but I have to admit that Frühbeck de Burgos brought it off perfectly. Clarity never suffered, and the brilliance of the fiddles never seemed exaggerated or hard. His deeply satisfying readings of Symphonies No. 1, 2, and 5 showed Frühbeck de Burgos and the Boston Symphony at their best and produced an almost wild response from the mature Friday afternoon audience.

For the First Symphony Frühbeck de Burgos reduced the strings somewhat, but not enough even remotely to suggest chamber forces. This was entirely appropriate in view of Beethoven’s robust textures and aggressive dynamics. In its time the symphony was bigger than it seems to us, who view it in hindsight. The First may seem a bit crude in comparison to Mozart, a bit simple in comparison to Haydn, and a trifle bland in comparison to Beethoven’s own Septet, which was played at the same concert as the First’s premiere, but it is ambitious nonetheless, and successful on its own terms. The performance, excellent as it was, presented few surprises, although the “Menuetto” (Allegro molto e vivace) proceeded at an interestingly deliberate tempo, as if to remind us that it’s not all rhythm and bounce.

In the Second, unlike most conductors, who favor reduced forces to associate it with Beethoven’s early work, Frühbeck de Burgos summoned all the BSO strings to produce the full resonance we associate with his later work. Combined with his observation of all repeats and some fairly deliberate though always flowing tempi, the symphony took on an impressive scale. It seemed to blossom as an ambitious, large-scale work, as playful as its fleeting moods might be. As it stretched out its wings in this way, I found myself admiring the overall shape of the work. Frühbeck de Burgos excels at this. The orchestral sound was sumptuous and grand, but no details were masked in tutti. It was most remarkable how subtle details like inner voices in the winds and pp pedal notes with bassoons and lower strings came through, although he refused to exaggerate them in any way. This performance was a masterwork of orchestral balance and virtuoso playing, not of a flashy sort, but of large-scale chamber music, with each player keenly aware of the others.

The afternoon culminated in a magnificent Fifth, which had all the virtues of the first half of the concert: impeccable balance, immaculate playing, glowing sonorities, and, above all, an understanding of how Beethoven insistently stretched the boundaries of the genre. This was a very grand and serious Fifth, which, again with full repeats and extreme dynamics, acquired a truly monumentally scale. On the other hand it was full of life and movement, and never heavy. The proportion, argument, and detail of the performance were so well integrated, and phrasing and tempo so free from affectation that it may seem hard to isolate what makes this performance conceptually different from others. This lies in Frühbeck de Burgos’ ease with the BSO players and his deep knowledge of the work. One example might be his approach to the “slow” movement, Andante con moto, which proceeded with the logical tempo indicated by the composer and suggested by the rhythmic values. There was no dragging or stretching. The breadth—and dignity—of the movement came from Beethoven’s own indications in the held notes terminating the dotted phrase that forms the central motif of the movement. Phrasing was crisp. Climaxes were built within and for the overall structure, and they retained all the transcendent power musicians, critics, and the public have seen in the Fifth for over two hundred years. In that way interpretations like these differ entirely from the literalism in favor in recent years, although, fifty years ago, such a performance would have been considered literal in comparison to Furtwängler or Stokowski. Boston is exceedingly fortunate in having Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos as a frequent visitor.

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