Mahler and Beethoven are the two central figures in Benjamin Zander’s musical life. Fifteen years ago the BPO devoted an entire season just to the music of Mahler, even spilling over into the first concert of the following year. Mr. Zander has not gone to such extremes with Beethoven, but for this, his 80th birthday year, he felt justified in indulging himself with at least one all-Beethoven program.
These three works all come from the middle, “heroic” period of Beethoven’s output, but they couldn’t be more different from each other. The Coriolan Overture is the only genuinely tragic piece of music that Beethoven ever composed. Darkly dramatic, compressed, almost claustrophobic, it is one of the composer’s most unusual orchestral works.
Nothing could be further from the brooding world of Coriolan than the “Emperor” Concerto, the last great, jubilant affirmation of the composer’s middle period. It is by a considerable margin the longest piano concerto that had been written by that point in music history, the most virtuosic – to the point of flamboyance – and the most revolutionary. It is possible to play this piece to dazzling effect as a virtuoso showpiece, but its deeper recesses are only revealed by truly great musicians. And we certainly have one of those in pianist Robert Levin! Levin has been a major force in classical music ever since his early days as a prodigy, and he has spent a lifetime pondering and playing the great works – of Mozart and Beethoven especially – and brings to them a depth of understanding that can hardly be matched by any other pianist today. And his thoughts are always in a state of evolution, so we can never be sure what to expect!
And, finally, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – the absolutely iconic Beethoven work. It is in part because it is so well known that Mr. Zander has always been powerfully attracted to it, because his study of what Beethoven actually wrote revealed a piece that is quite different from what one usually hears. His bracing, often revelatory account of this piece has thrilled audiences at the BPO and all over the world whenever he has conducted it.
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