Review: DSSO begins the Beethoven project with the early years

The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra’s ambitious recording project commenced Saturday night at the DECC’s Symphony Hall with “The Beethoven Project: The Early Years.” Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Symphony No. 1 were combined with works by Handel and Mozart, the contemporaries who were Beethoven’s main competitors.

The brass opening Handel’s Water Music Suite in D major provided the fanfare for the evening, followed by the piece’s most familiar theme. The ebb and flow of the Lentement was especially well done.

The standard protocol of having the guest artist conclude the first half of the evening resulted in an interesting juxtaposition. The critical consensus sees Haydn’s influence on Beethoven’s symphony and that of Mozart on the piano concerto. But the program switched the antecedents.

A podium situated stage right and a quintet of microphone stands towering over the orchestra served as reminders Minnesota Public Radio was recording the performance. Conductor Dirk Meyer periodically provided biographical details of Beethoven’s early years in Bonn, his hero worship of Handel, and his propensity to destroy the delicate pianofortes of his time.

Guest pianist Gilles Vonsattel evinced a deft ability to shift from loud to soft as he repeated and extended the theme of the first movement of Piano Concerto No. 3. This ability came back into play on the final flourishes that diminished into an eloquent recapitulation during his extended solo. Vonsattel has this captivating quality of maintaining a similar tone while his playing changes in volume.

The languorous opening of the Largo was delicately played before swelling to be taken up by the orchestra. Vonsattel’s hands seemingly floated over the keyboard, especially as he played under the orchestra when they picked up the theme.

The other defining characteristic of Vonsattel’s playing was his ability to bring out the joy of what the composer was doing in pushing the form of the piano concerto in new directions. The concerto ended with a final set of lightning runs up the keyboard.

Mozart’s admonition that the “first Allegro must be played with great fire” was extended by Meyer to include all four movements of Symphony No. 35 (Haffner), which clocked in at a brisk 17:02. The up-tempo approach was most obvious and most effective in the final movement.

As Meyer promised, Beethoven’s first symphony provided glimpses of what was to come. The idea of Beethoven at war with the musical conventions of his day was clear in the opening movement, where the tempo and volume contested to see which would top out first (volume won), followed by a little duel between oboe and flutes.

Meyer had explained how you cannot dance to a Beethoven Menuetto, which he was transforming into his signature Scherzo, so it was ironic that the preceding Andante would actually be easier to dance to. But the third movement Menuetto is the most dynamic of the symphony.

The final Presto begins without a break, and sounded rather Mozart-like until the horns disabused us of that notion. This was a fun little movement, and Meyer’s conducting certainly reflected that aspect of the music.

The Beethoven Project does not resume until Feb. 11, when Symphony No. 4 is the cornerstone of “Hidden Treasures.” The DSSO returns next for its traditional New Year’s Eve concert, devoted this time to the music of Elton John.

Lawrance Bernabo, Duluth News Tribune
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