A man in the balcony shouted that last Saturday, when the prolonged applause after the Ninth Symphony finally died down. People are still talking about that shout, and about the concert itself.
Which presents a challenge for this weekend’s Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concert, Part 2 of the Beethoven Festival. How do you top Part 1?
The orchestra and Music Director JoAnn Falletta mapped out a good strategy, focusing on Beethoven’s “heroic” music. The concert starts with the Piano Concerto No. 5 (the “Emperor”), with Norman Krieger at the piano. It finishes with the complete incidental music Beethoven wrote for Goethe’s drama “Egmont.” Emily Helenbrook is the soprano, and the narrator is Matthew Witten. “Egmont” is a co-production with Road Less Traveled Productions.
Saturday concertgoers should make sure to get to Kleinhans Music Hall on time, because there is not the customary short opening piece. The piano is on stage waiting when you get there, and you burst right into that “Emperor.”
On Friday, the performance of the concerto was, in many ways, exquisite. Krieger, a big, solid man who seems built for this kind of music, embodies confidence. Moreover, the orchestra itself played with extraordinary finesse. The strings, in the slow movement, were passionate, shining down to the last detail. The woodwinds’ precise articulation was a pleasure. Timpanist Matthew Bassett nailed his part just right at the start, not an easy thing to do, and also played with great sensitivity at the end of the last movement, when again timing is of the essence.
All these details are very important to this concerto, which brims with beauty for beauty’s sake. Krieger, at the piano, showed a special gift for the rapturous melody lines of the “Emperor” – the filigree in the high treble in the first movement, the caressing lines of the adagio. He could have given better pizazz to the tremendous opening statement of the last movement. It is one of the great moments of music, and one where you really have to go for broke. But he set the stage for that transition flawlessly, beautifully. He finished the concerto with tremendous grace.
After that glorious piece, “Egmont” could not help but be a bit behind the eight ball.
Aside from its magnificent overture, “Egmont” survives only as a curiosity. Its message, to fight to defend freedom and defy tyranny, is timeless. The soprano’s first aria, “Die Trommel gerühret,” is a pretty good song, expressing Egmont’s girlfriend’s wish to join him on the field. And it has some fine military music. (Beethoven, “Ode to Joy” aside, had a thing for marches and battles.)
Otherwise you have to make a kind of strong case for this piece. On Friday, I left unconvinced. The drama, necessarily abridged, seemed oversimplified and vague. You never got to know the character of Egmont. It was hard to understand what exactly his crusade was about. Blaming it briefly on “the Inquisition” did not help. No one who talks about the Inquisition ever knows the first thing about it.
Witten, the narrator, seemed overwrought. He declaimed his lines as if he were in battle, and it was hard not to giggle at lines like “Sweet flower, you have no friendly bosom on which to die.” It seemed unbalanced, too, that Egmont appears for the most part only in the narration – while his sweetheart, Clara, is the one at center stage. I wished Beethoven could have written music for Egmont to sing. The piece needs a good love duet. Or something.
Even if the production was on the silly side, though, the music is interesting. Beethoven, God love him, obviously had fun suggesting the Spanish troops pouring into the city, the gates of the dungeon closing, and the drums signaling Egmont’s execution. The orchestra gave the music the same loving attention as it had given the “Emperor.”
Helenbrook, in a beautiful blue gown, was poised and professional. Her voice is still developing, and she did not always project in a way so you could hear her distinctly over the orchestra. But her tone was sweet and convincing. At 20, she seems to have an admirable sense for the music. It is clear that she takes it to heart.
Part 2 of the Beethoven Festival repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday in Kleinhans Music Hall.