It may well be true, as a colleague pointed out in last Sunday’s L.A.Times, that the Beethoven glut has reached the point of absurdity, that the hundred-or-so available recordings of the Fifth Symphony are 95-or-so too many. It is equally true, however, that the DNA of great works of music contains a resurrection gene. There is still room, in the realm of the masterpiece, for a transcendent performance to reveal a work as if newly composed.
Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and I have had a rewarding life together; if I had a dime for every performance I’ve heard — live or on disc — I could probably spend my weekends in Acapulco. Still, the performance at the Music Center two weeks ago, with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and with Philharmonic concertmaster Alexander Treger pressed into service as conductor to replace the ailing Franz Welser-Möst, reached these ears as an experience awakening and refreshing.
The Fourth Concerto is Beethoven’s Opus 58. The “Eroica” is Opus 55; the “Triple” Concerto is 56; the “Appassionata” Sonata is 57; and the three “Razumovsky” quartets are 59. In little more than a year (1804–06), the musical world was accorded the incredible bounty of seven stupendous artworks (welllll, maybe six and a half, since the Triple Concerto does tend to chase its own tail), no two of which sound anything alike and which together form the foundation for all music from that time to the present.
Of that illustrious company, the Fourth Concerto is the most reflective, the most immediately ingratiating. Much is made in the music-history books about the opening, the fact that Beethoven allots the first music to the solo piano instead of the usual long orchestral exordium. The trick isn’t all that new; Mozart began one of his early piano concertos with a dialogue between solo and orchestra. What is truly novel in Beethoven is the collision between that piano solo and what comes immediately after. The piano enters with the principal theme, in G major, the work’s prevailing tonality. But the orchestra responds, not in G as expected, but in the “remote” key of B major. It’s a jolt similar to that famous C-sharp at the start of the “Eroica,” but softer this time, cloaked in mystery. The episode doesn’t last half a minute, but the events within that time amaze and delight the ear.
. . . Or should, at any rate. From the start, the young Norwegian pianist managed to project exactly what Beethoven had in mind in this sublime music: the opening solo quiet and reflective, as if responding to a passing cloud; a solo entrance later on like an arrival at a hilltop at sunrise; the slow-movement dialogue as close to actual words as instrumental music can come. Andsnes has been playing here since 1991: first at the Hollywood Bowl with the obligatory — and, if I remember, unremarkable — Grieg Concerto, later with the Brahms D-minor, the Rach 3, and in a particularly brainy duo-recital with the violinist Christian Tetzlaff. He’s 27, good-looking onstage without excessive mannerisms, obviously intelligent; even in this overcrowded world there’s room for an artist of his quality. The Monday after his concerto performances he joined Philharmonic musicians at one of their chamber-music concerts at the Gindi Auditorium, in an endearing performance of far lesser Beethoven, the Opus 16 Quintet for Piano and Winds. Word must have gotten around; I don’t remember that much turn -away business for a chamber program since the golden days of the Budapest Quartet.
Hungary’s Adam Fischer — best known for his Haydn recordings on Nimbus — took over the next week’s concert, which included oboist David Weiss’ elegant reading of the Mozart C-major Concerto (which may have been composed for his instrument, or for flute) and a suite of color-slashed movements from Zoltán Kodály’s Háry János. Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony (No. 38) began the program, another of those prophetic works — subtle, complex, and full of strange and unexpected turns — that show the prodigious young Mozart, so much a product of the Classical outlook of his time and yet striding boldly into unknown regions and returning with treasure. Fischer’s performance was bright and loud, but — in this, his debut appearance at the Music Center — he had not yet learned that the first violinists down front in that acoustically treacherous setting, however splendid their actions may appear, are practically inaudible unless the winds and brass restrain their exuberance.
Both Mozart’s symphony and Beethoven’s concerto are two centuries old, plus or minus; their best performances underline their innate fund of innovation and courage. George Antheil’s 1925 Ballet Mécanique, which UC San Diego’s percussion ensemble red fish blue fish performed at the last Green Umbrella concert at the Japan America, enjoyed similar esteem in its time; music for percussion ensemble, although broached in 1921 in Stravinsky’s Les Noces, was a long way from the respectability it now enjoys. Antheil’s work, along with the film by Fernand Léger that had originally been meant to accompany it, became famous for being famous; its Paris premiere elicited another of those audience riots without which music didn’t seem able to exist at the time. Revived — along with the film — in a brilliantly conceived rescoring by red fish’s Steven Schick, Antheil’s conceit came across as a clumsy parody of musical pathways that other composers of the time — in Germany and France — were seriously exploring: an interesting sociological phenomenon, perhaps, with no musical substance worth mentioning.
Kaija Saariaho’s Six Japanese Gardens, which Schick had also played at the Ojai Festival last summer, said much more in its eight minutes than Antheil had in 20: elegant, delicately colored music, constantly involved in conversation with its player. Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus cleared the air: obsessive, hammering music, deeply textured and — for listeners fearless and, preferably, earless — exhilarating. At the end there was another piece by the ubiquitous Tan Dun: the 1991 Elegy: Snow in June. You have to admire Tan Dun; in his 11 years in the U.S., he has wrapped himself as a remarkably sleek, salable package: the movie score Fallen; operas Marco Polo and a new commission from the Metropolitan; the huge mishmash of a symphony (Paul McCartney meets Scriabin) composed for the Hong Kong takeover. The mechanisms are impressive; his music tells me what I am listening to, but not who. The Elegy, composed to honor the fallen in Tian An Men Square, draws a lot of elegiac sounds from the idea of a solo cello (Bang on a Can’s Maya Beiser) emerging with a single note from a hodgepodge of sound; in no time, however, it becomes a mannerism. The packaging, the gadgetry: Mozart and Beethoven turned out some mighty music without their help; too many composers these days don’t even try.