The San Francisco Symphony, led by Music Director & Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, recreated an extraordinary day in music history. On December 22, 1808, at the Theater an der Wien, in Vienna, Beethoven premiered his 6th and 5th symphonies, the Piano Concerto No. 4, Choral Fantasy, movements of his Mass in C major, the aria Ah! Perfido. It was a four hour long concert. The story goes that the evening was a disaster. The musicians were not well prepared to play either symphony. The errors in the Choral Fantasy were so egregious that Beethoven stopped its performance and demanded it begun again. Reports include the continuing disappearance of the audience and that the weather was unusually cold. The SF Symphony recreated the event (the weather in SF being fine) with the Beethoven Marathon, June 20. The Hedgehogs were fortunate to hear the full program but divided into two separate evenings, June 17 and 18. (Previous posts about the June 17th concert and the June 18 performance of the Symphony No. 5 are below.)
MTT opened the June 18 program with Symphony No. 5. The shock and awe (isn’t this a truer way to use those words than their more recent history as a pair?) of the Symphony still occupied our beings when the second half of the program opened with the Sanctus movement from the Mass in C major. It begins with only four measures played by the orchestra and then is sung by the chorus without accompaniment. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus with soloists Nikki Einfeld, soprano; Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor, Shenyang, bass-baritone gave us a stellar presentation of the prayer of praise. The Sanctus is also a central Hebrew prayer: Kodosh, Kodosh, Kodosh, Holy, Holy, Holy, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus; the words, meaning and purpose are the same. The purity of the singers’ voices created a new atmosphere in Davies Hall, peaceful and exalted.
Beethoven was a great pianist as well as a great composer and sought after for his performances. Spontaneous, improvisational “fantasies” were greatly valued by music lovers; Beethoven was a master of this kind of playing. Improvisation disappears as it happens unless a recording device is present. There is some documentation of cadenzas which were written after an improvisation or descriptive writing reporting on the music. Fortunately there is a document of Beethoven’s Fantasy (Opus 77), 1809. This exciting music may be as close as we can get to Beethoven improvising. Performed by Jonathan Biss, the Fantasy was a roller coaster ride of rapidly changing forms and exquisite, high spirited energy. Mr. Biss obviously relished exploring Beethoven’s free ranging imagination. His performance was thrilling.
The Choral Fantasy demonstrates the Beethoven who stretched his arms to encircle the world. It is set to a poem attributed to Christoph Kuffner. It begins, “Ingratiating, lovely, and loving/are the harmonies of our lives,/the sense of beauty brings forth/flowers that bloom forever.” Performed by the SF Symphony; Jonathan Biss, piano; Nikki Einfeld, soprano; Brielle Marina Neilson, mezzo-soprano; Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Matthew Peterson, baritone; Shenyang, bass-baritone; and the SF Symphony Chorus, it was a musical expression of the triumph of the human spirit. It is propelled by the same joy in life that lifts up Symphony No. 9 and takes us with it. On December 22, 1808, Beethoven himself played the piano. Mr. Biss’s power and expression are his own, but one finds him a grand stand-in for the master. Feeling lighter, more optimistic the audience could depart as though at the beginning of things instead of an ending. The SF Symphony fulfilled the Choral Fantasy‘s promise: “When music’s magic exerts its power/and words speak consecration,/something wonderful takes shape…”
Pictures: top: Beethoven; Michael Tilson Thomas; Jonathan Biss