This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven and orchestras around the globe have filled their seasons with a myriad of classical favourites from the German composer.
In its first concert of the new year, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented a program which included a work less familiar to Toronto audiences (the King Stephen overture) and two chestnuts – his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, and Symphony No. 7 in A Major. What the audience heard at Roy Thomson Hall ) was not the usual bombastic Beethoven, but something altogether more stately and thoughtful.
This was largely owing to the leadership of Sir Andrew Davis, the TSO’s interim artistic director and conductor laureate, who maintained a watchful control to deliver a concert of considerable colour and depth. Opening the concert was the King Stephen overture, part of a larger work written in 1811 to celebrate Hungary’s first king. Despite some weak brass work, the orchestra gave an elegant reading, with Davis underlining the arpeggiated rhythms and tonal structures that foreshadow the Ninth Symphony, written a decade later.
This emphasis on structure was equally discernible in the Piano Concerto No. 4. Premiered in 1808 on an overcrowded bill that also featured the premieres of Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 5 and 6 and his Choral Fantasy, the concerto possesses a subtle poetic grace as it shifts between tonalities and textures. In his TSO debut, Seong-Jin Cho demonstrated precise phrasing in his solo opening. He and Davis maintained a lively interplay throughout, as the maestro conjured colours from various sections and, in the first movement, coaxed gentle crescendos that seemed to dissolve as quickly as they had arisen. This was a performance not of the grandiose variety but one of great lyricism and delicacy. Davis’s beautiful handling of the short transition from the second movement into the third was akin to a beam of light lasered across a dark sky. It was nicely complemented by Cho’s quiet confidence, which was shown to good effect in the encore, the second movement of the Sonata No. 8 in C Minor (popularly known as Pathétique).
That lyricism continued into the TSO’s performance of Symphony No. 7, premiered in 1813 at a benefit concert for war veterans. Davis rightly emphasized the work’s march-like qualities while accentuating its instrumental exchanges with deft precision. The arrangement of the orchestra, with violins seated at the front and basses at the back, maximized the score’s textural variance, particularly the second movement’s insistent syncopations. Davis maintained firm control, with left hand frequently out, palm down, slowing and quieting strings and brass in this “apotheosis of the dance,” as Wagner called it. Such discipline allowed for a thoughtfulness that structurally referenced the past (Bach in particular) while lyrically anticipating the future (especially Enescu), all of which was encapsulated in the fourth and final movement, presented as a feast of rhythmic modulation.