Review: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto
By Perry Tannenbaum
Beginning in September with two of the pinnacles of Western music, the Emperor Concerto #5 and the Choral Symphony #9, the Charlotte Symphony has been presenting an autumn of Beethoven. They rewound Ludwig to Symphony #1 in October and checked in with two more symphonic works earlier this month, the Violin Concerto and the rarely performed “Overture to The Consecration of the House.” So it figures. They’re getting good at it.
Unlike the masses, I look forward to live performances of the Beethoven’s Violin Concerto far more eagerly than yet another iteration of the mighty Symphony #9. In fact, I played hooky from the earlier concert where the great Chorale kicked off the 2017-18 Classics Series. If Leo Direhuys, Peter McCoppin, and Christof Perick could triumph with the Symphony and their chorus (formerly known as the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte), so could their current maestro, Christopher Warren-Green.
Brassy, stately, contrapuntal, and grand, the Consecration overture convinces you that Beethoven had an English period like Haydn and Handel. Ludwig was likely studying Handel, along with Bach, when he received this commission in 1822 – or harvesting the fruits of recently studying those giants. It is music that Warren-Green, hailing from the UK, showed a natural affinity for. The maestro certainly sparked a fleet, zesty performance from the orchestra, especially the trumpets and the trombones, who brought gilded fire to the heraldic episodes.
Earmarks of the second movement of Choral Symphony showed up in the bustling section of this delightfully chameleonic work, and the ending took a similar path in amping up its intensity. I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that the composer was putting the finishing touches on both works at about the same time.
Beethoven had already completed his Symphony #5 when he wrote his lone Violin Concerto in 1805, so we can count it as one more glory of his wondrous Middle Period. After triumphing with the overture, Warren-Green wasn’t letting up on the orchestral power. The violins, sweet in their opening passages, became sharp and lively with the onset of the timpani.
You could say, then, that after 13+ minutes of prime orchestral Beethoven, guest soloist Benjamin Beilman had a tough act to follow in his Charlotte debut. But this wasn’t his Carolinas debut, for the violinist has been one of the featured artists in the Bank of America chamber music series at Spoleto Festival USA for the past three years. He makes a suave impression, and I’ve heard him excel down in Charleston in a Beethoven string trio, a Ravel duo, and piano quartets by Dvorak and Fauré. But I was interested to see what would happen when he collided with this concerto colossus.
When the collision occurs, the music should win, carrying the soloist with it. You can hear that happening on the very best recordings, such as Itzhak Perlman’s with the Philharmonia Orchestra or Isabelle Faust’s with the Orchestra Mozart. Nothing quite that magical happened as Beilman took on the epic Allegro ma non troppo opening movement. But if Beilman didn’t sweep us up to the skies, he certainly treated us to some of the most muscular high notes I’ve heard at Belk Theater and – within his first solo spot – some stunning pianissimos.
While the ideal flow of the labyrinthine lines eluded him in the early part of the movement, the virtuosity demanded by the climatic cadenza did not. In the Larghetto middle movement, the woodwinds supplied cathedral-like sounds for Beilman’s rapturous entrance, a perfect showcase for his burnished midrange.
Flaunting tradition, he actually paused before the captivating Rondo-Allegro finale. After the dilatory opening notes, however, Beilman pounced on the familiar theme like a panther and infused the pizzicato passages afterwards with eager delight. The majestic cadenza was like a mini-concerto of its own, sweet and wistful at its center with fire and intensity on both ends.
After intermission, Warren-Green needed to grab a microphone and tell us about the novelty he had embedded in Symphony’s rendition of Johannes Brahms’s Symphony #4. Apparently, the composer had attended a performance where the conductor had reduced the violas to a mere two players when their section was to be most prominent. Brahms heartily approved, so Warren-Green decided to revive the practice.
When that hushed moment came in the Andante moderato second movement, and principal violist Benjamin Geller and Ning Zhao brought brief attention to their oft-overlooked section of the orchestra, it was a curiously effective way to evoke the living presence of the composer – 132 years after his death. Warren-Green’s anecdote also subtly pointed up the meticulous preparation of the entire performance.
You could hear the scrupulous attention to detail in the sweep of the violins in the opening Allegro. Aside from the violas, principal clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo and principal oboist Hollis Ulaky distinguished themselves in the newly emphasized second movement. The ensuing Allegro giocoso had a frolicsome feel as timpanist Leonardo Soto pleasantly traded licks with a triangle. After a long respite from Beethovenian fire, the flame was relit in the Allegro energico finale.
Battles between the violins and the trumpets were deliciously intense. These were counterbalanced with solo dialogues between principal French hornist Frank Portone and principal flautist Victor Wang – and a second helping with Portone and Kavadlo. Heading out of that quiet section into the rousing finish, the whole French horn section had their best showing of the night.