When was the last time a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony surprised and excited you?
Even if you’re a regular symphonygoer, you probably have to think long and hard on that one. Beethoven’s Fifth is as much a part of the cultural firmament as the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David, and unfortunately that sort of familiarity leads not to predictability but a contentment with cliché. Everybody knows its iconic dunt-dunt-dunt-duhhhn, and shares an expectation of where it goes from there.
Kudos, then, to conductor Michael Francis for tossing those expectations aside. In his debut with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday, he offered a vision of the Fifth that not only made the music breathtaking again but nearly upstaged a pair of impressive performances by violin powerhouse Anne-Sophie Mutter.
Granted, comparing Beethoven’s Fifth to what Mutter played – Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and Sofia Gubaidulina’s In tempus praesens – is hardly fair.
The Bach concerto, which opened the concert, hardly packs the same punch, being small-scale and cerebral where the Beethoven is big and emotional. For the Bach, Mutter trimmed the orchestra to chamber size and dispensed with the conductor.
It was a smart move, because it placed the solo voice squarely in the ensemble, integrating her lines instead of showcasing them. As always, Mutter made the most of her lustrous tone, but she kept her usually huge sound in check, playing with a dignified vivacity to the spritely first movement, and adding just enough vibrato to sweeten the mournful, minor-key melody of the second.
Then came the Beethoven. Francis was quick out of the gate, taking the opening allegro con brio with far more brio than most: Typically, conductors use the pauses in the score for emphasis, like a professor underlining a key point on the chalkboard. Francis, by contrast, chose to underscore the music’s melodic momentum, presenting the first movement as a rush of ideas in which each variation leads inexorably to the next.
Apart from a bit of blurring from the cellos and double basses in the third-movement fugue, Francis had no trouble getting the Toronto players to match his vision. Indeed, there were moments of startling beauty, as when, in the first movement, Sarah Jeffrey’s oboe shone forth like a sunbeam in the forest.
His ability to coax solo-quality performances from the ensemble was particularly handy in the Gubaidulina. It’s an unusual, large-scale work, employing multiple keyboards, Wagnerian brass and a phalanx of percussion – but no violins, apart from the soloist. (Principal violist Teng Li acted as concertmaster.) As Mutter explained, In tempus praesens translates as “In present times,” and the piece depicts a struggle for enlightenment against the forces of conformity and oppression, with the violin representing “the goddess of wisdom.”
Hardly a modest role, but Mutter was well-suited to the part. Her commanding tone and confident phrasing made it easier to follow the almost mathematical logic of Gubaidulina’s score, and she had no problem with the occasionally torturous double-stops in the middle of the piece.
But it was the climax, in which the struggling soul rises above the forces of evil and ascends to heaven (really), that brought out her best, as her sound soared over a tumult of brass and percussion to finish on a piercingly triumphant F-sharp. It was going out on a high note in the most literal sense.