LENOX — Sunday afternoon at Tanglewood brought us the last concert in the three-concert series surveying all of the Beethoven piano concertos in a period of less than 48 hours.
The series was led by Paul Lewis, the English-born pianist, known for his seriousness and expertise in the music of early 19th-century composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert. He was joined in this impressive feat by Andris Nelsons and the musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And together they made a deeply committed and compatible team.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor,” is one of his greatest works, overflowing with newly fashioned melodies, stirring rhythms, and expressive harmonic surprises, and balancing perfectly the composer’s two prevailing qualities: iron-ribbed muscularity and dove-like gentleness.
Lewis was greeted at this final concert of his weekend, even before he began to play, with rousing applause and cheers for his Friday and Saturday performances of the first four Beethoven piano concertos. And after his masterful rendition of Concerto No. 5, the applause and cheers were even more enthusiastic and sustained.
There are no definitive performances of musical works. And Lewis gave definitive performances of the Beethoven piano concertos this weekend. Let me explain.
Musical creations do not live on the page, they live in performance. They need other artists to bring them alive. And the conception of what is the best way to do so changes through time. In Beethoven’s time, all the circumstances of performance were different from the way they are today. Audiences were from a narrower spectrum of society but more deeply informed, halls were smaller, all the instruments involved were constructed differently from today’s instruments.
Most significantly, the pianos for which Beethoven wrote were much smaller and lighter than the magnificent nine-foot concert grand on display this weekend. So Lewis and Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave definitive performances of these works for today’s audience, in the vast Tanglewood Shed, on today’s instruments.
I say definitive, for it is impossible to imagine a finer display of music making than we heard over this weekend at Tanglewood with the five Beethoven piano concertos. The orchestra was precise, thoughtful, and idiomatic. The trumpets and drums made a joyful noise, as they should. The winds were beautifully balanced and expressive, and the strings spun fine webs of sound or punched dramatic chords as needed. The pianist was expressively understated, so that every gradation of volume, every slight stretching of the tempo, was powerfully effective. His tone ranged from frighteningly powerful to tenderly poetic. His understanding of the music and his complete synchrony with conductor and orchestra were at the basis of all these performances. It was a revelation to hear all these works, however familiar they may be, in such close proximity. This weekend will be remembered by all in attendance for a long time to come.
Sunday’s program included music by two women composers; one a contemporary American, a 2012 Tanglewood Music Center Fellow who now teaches at Cornell University, and the other a 19th century professor of piano at the Paris Conservatory.
The five sections of Elizabeth Ogoneck’s “Starling Variations” were varied and picturesque. The composer, who has been a composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, introduced the work herself. She is someone to watch.
The symphony of French composer Louise Farrenc could be a match for those of Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn, with whom she was a contemporary, and yet it displayed a verve and originality all its own. The widespread use of the timpani to provide the bass notes in accompaniment and the very extensive writing for winds, especially the beautiful clarinet melody in the slow movement, were completely distinctive. The Boston Symphony Orchestra must be congratulated on the revival of this fine work and for their highlighting the music of composers historically slighted over the centuries.MUSIC REVIEWWhat: Andris Nelsons conducts Elizabeth Ogonek, Farrenc, and Beethoven featuring Paul Lewis, piano
When: Sunday, July 31
Where: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lenox