"How do we approach a Beethoven Festival when the world of Western concert music is a perpetual Beethoven Festival anyhow?" So asks Michael Steinberg's program essay in this week's concert booklet, and Michael Steinberg has been dead for six years, so it's not a new question. His answer is, basically, pay close attention to the music. Beethoven is an exciting, even shocking composer, which is what made him ubiquitous in the first place, but it's his ubiquity that makes us take him for granted and keeps us from seeing his true qualities.
This week's entry in this year's month-long SFS Beethoven Festival is a little different from others. On Dec. 22, 1808, Beethoven presented a famous concert which premiered, among other things, both his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (a more differing adjacent pair by one composer would be hard to match until Prokofiev's First and Second) and his Fourth Piano Concerto. It was something of a marathon. MTT is reproducing that marathon - the whole thing - on Saturday. I'm not going to that. But prior to that, during the week, he and the symphony are giving some half-marathons, just slightly larger than an ordinary concert. Tonight's was one of those.
We had the Sixth Symphony, the Pastorale, in a relaxed, expansive performance. Even the thunderstorm scene was a relaxed thunderstorm. A lot of good playing, but some horn flubs in the last movement, tsk. We had the Fourth Piano Concerto with Jonathan Biss. Unlike the sharply etched version I heard in San Jose recently, this one managed to be both brusque and gentle at the same time, all the way through. For smaller pieces we had the Creatures of Prometheus Overture - a superb performance - and the concert aria Ah! perfido with Karita Mattila, a deep- and hollow-voiced soprano who did not utter a single intelligible syllable and who sounded as if she was singing from the basement.