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S & H International Concert Review

Beethoven Symphony No. 7, Dussek Piano Concerto in G minor, Reicha Overture in D major. San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano. Davies Symphony Hall, May 21, 2004 (HS)

Every year San Francisco Symphony schedules a late-season festival of some sort. In years past it has focused on maverick American composers or Mahler. This year it's Beethoven, but with a twist. Instead of doing just the usual Beethoven chestnuts, music director Michael Tilson Thomas has plucked pieces by the composer's contemporaries to perform alongside them. With the highfalutin' title "Beethoven's Vienna: Scenes from a Musical Revolution," the fortnight, which climaxes in a semi-staged "Fidelio" next week, has had symposiums, a sonata recital by Anton Nel, and this weekend's uneasy juxtaposition of the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 with a strange little concert overture by Antonin Reicha and an obscure piano concerto by Johann Dussek.

Musical audiences can be forgiven if their response were a puzzled "Who?" According to the program notes, Reicha was an exact contemporary of Beethoven's, born the same year, 1770, and played violin and flute in the same court orchestra in Bonn where the young Ludwig sawed away on his viola. Reicha made his mark later as a music publisher, but having studied composition with Salieri kept his hand in that end of the game as well. He had a particular fondness for working out arcane musical theories, which is reflected in the Overture in D that opened this program. The piece is entirely in 5/8, decades ahead of such famous five-beat works as the introduction to Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture and Tchaikovsky's Allegro con grazia movement in his Symphony No. 6.

Reicha's approach is not very revolutionary, however. Rather than revel in the five-beat sequence, which can give the impression of a limping dance, Reicha seems intent on minimizing the unevenness, which results in music that sounds almost normal. The piece is lively, classically structured, and makes an appealingly light-hearted opener.

The Bohemian pianist-composer Dussek, 10 years older than Beethoven, is closer to Mozart in time and in the feel of his music. He was a celebrated concertizer who spent a good many of his mature years in London. He is responsible, according to the program notes, for bringing the solo piano out from its classic location within the orchestra, its point facing the conductor and the audience, to the position we are more familiar with today -- parallel to the front of the orchestra. He was apparently taking advantage of his good looks, placing himself where the audience could get a good look. The concerto was never the same.

One would expect a concerto of his to be long on razzle-dazzle, and the Concerto in G minor, written around 1800, gives the pianist plenty of long runs and resounding chords to show off. Curiously, there are no actual cadenzas, although there are several spots where the pianist goes it alone and indulges in plenty of keyboard ornamentation.

Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet rattled off the brilliant moments with aplomb. He was performing from a score, which may have kept the piece from taking off, but at heart it's pretty routine stuff, kind of low-rent Mozart with a few nods toward Haydn. Thibaudet can corral large agglomerations of notes into coherent phrases that seem as though they are being caressed like a simple melody. It was as satisfying to follow to his highly musical approach to Dussek's pianistic flourishes. In a way, Dussek's piano writing is a precursor to Paganini's writing for violin, although with the classical era's restraint keeping him from extolling the sheer virtuosity that makes the romantic era violin star's music so compelling.

Following these two works with a masterpiece like the Beethoven 7th only magnifies the gulf between these talented but not very magical composers and the magnificent presence of Beethoven's music. I must confess that the 7th is my personal favorite of Beethoven's symphonies, but I seldom hear performances that capture its winsome, fleet-footed rhythms while still giving the soaring architecture and glorious turns of phrase their full due. Tilson Thomas got darned close with a performance that seemed to spring organically from one phrase to the next.

For a piece that was programmed for only two concerts, instead of the usual four or five in subscription series, unanimity of entrances was remarkably sharp. Even more impressive was the clarity of inner voices and textures that gave the performance a gleam. This conductor is especially good at coaxing rhythmic vitality from this orchestra, and a piece like the 7th, with its many dance rhythms, plays to that strength. Not surprisingly, tempos never flagged, even in the relatively spacious opening section and the slowest of the four movements, the Allegretto. The latter featured remarkably soulful playing from English hornist Juilie Ann Giacobassi. But the stars of the show were the two hornists -- acting principal Robert Ward and associate principal Bruce Roberts -- who let the big moments fly with abandon without missing a note or a beat.

Actually, that's not quite true. The strength of this performance was the way all the musicians on stage found the same rhythmic clarity and responsiveness to Tilson Thomas' direction. Beethoven's music plays with the contrasts between delicate refinement and rough-and-ready rhythms and harmonies. Without missing any of these details, this performance seemed to zip past in no time. Reicha and Dussek could only aspire to that sort of magic.

Harvey Steiman


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