Friday night, the introduction to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 sounded like a gradual awakening after a long slumber. Conductor Edo de Waart shaped Beethoven’s slow, sustained gestures as if luxuriously stretching toned, supple and well-rested muscles.
De Waart and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra then stepped to the starting line of the exposition and sped through the principal theme. They played vigorously and with great drive, but with no desperation or even haste.
The First Symphony is Beethoven in the best of moods. I’ve heard it played as buffoonery, with syncopations as sonic pratfalls and dynamic outbursts as Bronx cheers. That can work, but de Waart went instead for high comedy; he blended jollity with elegance. Beautiful sound, immaculate ensemble and graceful phrasing held right through the farcical finale.
Total deafness had isolated Beethoven for some time before he composed the Grosse Fugue, Opus 133, as the concluding movement of the String Quartet, Opus 130. His publisher urged him to withdraw the finale and compose a new one, which Beethoven did. The Grosse Fugue became a stand-alone work. This 16-minute fantasy of fugal procedures, isolated gestures, sonata-type development and variation baffled musicians of Beethoven’s day. It remains daunting in its willfulness and complexity. Hearing it is like being trapped in Beethoven’s intently focused but impossibly restless brain.
De Waart parsed and clarified it on the micro and macro scales. The MSO, playing Felix Weingartner’s 1906 arrangement for string orchestra, shaped gestures to de Waart’s exact and instantly readable specifications when the music turned pensive and flexible. When it advanced like some implacable contrapuntal machine, you could hear the mathematical ratios of meshing gears. Emerging from the first such episode into the first intermezzo was like exiting a gleaming, automated factory and entering a gently sunlit garden.
The First Symphony is music to charm and impress the world. The Grosse Fugue is personal exploration, and Beethoven doesn’t give a damn about the public. In the Symphony No. 5, which concludes this season-opening program, Beethoven follows his muse but also posts a manifesto for all to see: Forms of the prior generation are not sacred, I will bend them as I please to fully express bigger-than-life passions and ideas.
Thus begins the Romantic Age in music; a few decades later, self-indulgence, egomania and grandiloquence take it over, and Modernism comes along as a curative. You already hear some excess in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. But in the Fifth, Beethoven’s expression is taut and lean and very much about a new sort of formal unity that reaches across movements.
De Waart read it just that way: as fleet, determined music with no time for tears and nonsense. Every recapitulation came back just a shade faster and fiercer than its exposition, and that difference grew across four movements. By the time de Waart and the orchestra approached the end, they had built the sort of gigantic momentum that justifies that enormous coda. It also capped the concert as a whole in a very satisfying way.
This Beethoven program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24-25. For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206. For further information, visity the MSO’s website.