Not too many composers can survive the scrutiny of a concert consisting only of their music. The champ in this regard is undoubtedly Beethoven: an orchestra can schedule an all-Beethoven concert with confidence of artistic and box-office success. This is a composer people don't get tired of - and even jaded music reviewers can be roused to enthusiasm if the concert is well done. (Spoiler alert: both the audience and I were quite enthusiastic about this one on Thursday night.)
In a program repeating Saturday night at Kodak Hall, the RPO presented a stern but crowd-pleasing program of three Beethoven works that all happen to be in the same key, C Minor: the "Coriolan" Overture, the Third Piano Concerto with Stephen Hough, and the Fifth Symphony, all under the lively leadership of guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger.
Stephen Hough is a marvelous pianist in almost any repertoire you care to mention. For whatever reason, Beethoven's C Minor Concerto didn't seem to be an ideal match of music and interpreter, at least on Thursday night: the long opening movement seemed disjointed and a bit cold, and the rondo finale rather spiky and humorless. However, these movements were surrounded by a Largo that warmed up considerably.
Hough and the orchestra played this grave and beautiful movement like chamber music - the pearly figurations in the piano part seem to grow more and more elaborate as the movement progresses, but Hough never overwhelmed the lyrical melodies in the orchestra (and those duets for flute and bassoon were well worth hearing). And for what it's worth, Hough does codas really well. In the first movement, Beethoven follows a tremendous cadenza with a compact, rather sinister ending, which Hough played with a nice touch of mystery. And the runaway ending of the finale gave the movement a sparkling finish. Though I found this performance uneven, even on a slightly off night Stephen Hough is supremely intelligent artist and always worth hearing.
The Brazilian-born Lehninger, who is associate conductor of the Boston Symphony, is a lively presence on the podium. His approach to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was apparent from the famous opening measures, and it was a very satisfactory one. He didn't try to make a deeply personal artistic statement or gain extra musicological points; he and the orchestra seemed to be intent on simply giving a dramatic, well-played version of a classic work, and it came off handsomely. (This was also the case for the "Coriolan" Overture, which opened the program.)
Lehninger seemed to be giving a little extra encouragement to the cellos and basses, and he got a nice solid sound with just the right hint of heaviness, not bad at all for this work. And when those instruments got that famous solo of their own in the scherzo, they ran with it (like "the gambols of a delighted elephant," to quote Hector Berlioz).
The famous iris-in, iris-out effect of the transition between the scherzo and the finale was perfectly judged, and the orchestra made the most of Beethoven's odd, quiet pizzicatos and wisps of tunes. In a famous passage describing this work in his "Howard's End," E.M. Forster described this passage as "the goblins," and it did have a suitably creepy air. The finale was the usual blaze of glory, played with enthusiasm and panache. Lehninger made the most of the return of the "goblins" just before the coda; the man has a sense of drama. And for that final blaze of glory, Lehninger pulled the stops out pretty far, but just far enough. This interpretation of the Fifth Symphony was driven, lyrical, exalted, a bit rude, and even a bit funny. Sounds like Beethoven to me.