Beethoven enthusiasts know that his compositions can be broken into three categories based on the mood they accomplish. Though Chautauquans heard two works Thursday night from his middle, or “heroic” period, the two Beethoven works spanned a wide range, credited to varying interpretation between conductor and soloist.
The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra hosted Brazilian-born conductor Marcelo Lehninger and Italian pianist Roberto Plano on Thursday night for an evening of Beethoven and Ravel. Lehninger led an authoritative and tight rendition of Beethoven’s “Coriolan Overture,” while Plano’s performance of the composer’s third piano concerto reflected an older Beethoven — one whose brooding romanticism accounts for much of his historical contribution and legacy.
The overture opens with heavy, high-drama chords, illustrating great tension before we hear any thematic melody. Lehninger’s measured interpretation presented a confident hero, more grounded than urgent, leaving the melodrama of Beethoven’s later years out; this stylistic decision keeps Beethoven’s fate a mystery and doesn’t betray the legitimate developmental stage documented in the score. The withheld, tempered Beethoven shows us what preceded the disheveled, wild-eyed figure depicted in so many busts and history books.
Beginning with the overture and continuing throughout the concert, the CSO’s balance and subtlety with dynamic contrast were incredibly effective as a storytelling tool. The ensemble plays beautifully together, taking advantage of their familiarity with one another without sacrificing creativity.
As Plano sat on the piano bench awaiting his entrance, the orchestral introduction maintained the suppressed composer portrayed in the overture. It’s thrilling to hear the intricacies and carefully constructed thematic material that lasts four times longer than “Coriolan” — you can hear the calculated potential as the opening unfolds.
By the time Plano reached the top of the ascending scales that begin his part, his contrasting interpretation was clear. Plano’s Beethoven is heavy and dramatic, in turn giving authority to the tender, lyrical melodies — clearly one of Plano’s strengths. In the primary themes, Plano’s foot was a little heavy on the pedal for my taste, and his rubato — giving and taking of time — a bit too dreamy. But the secondary themes, characterized by sweet, gentle phrases, were richer for his perspective.
At the close of the first movement, Plano unleashed his modern sensibilities with a lush cadenza written by Wilhelm Kempff, a 20th-century composer. I instantly wanted to hear his rendition of Chopin’s ballades or another work that would emphasize the quixotic nature of Plano’s playing.
The second movement of Beethoven’s concerto, with its heartbreaking, sentimental and supple tunes, fit the bill. With Plano’s two hands and also with piano and orchestra, there was a sense of two lilting partners dancing gracefully with one another. Here were Plano’s best moments of beauty and delicacy.
After a final movement — a rondo, which graciously avoids the monotonous arpeggios that comprise the middle sections of the piece’s first and second movements — Plano returned for an encore, beginning with the popular “Für Elise” and giving way to a hot and heavy jazz version of the piece, much to the crowd’s delight.
After the intermission, we heard that the CSO and Lehninger are capable of more than a rare accounting of Beethoven. They played three works by Ravel: “Alborada del gracioso,” “Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a dead princess)” and “Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2.”
Ravel’s mastery comes from marrying flashy, sparkling ideas with deep, unexpected harmonic structure; his music layers the gaudy with the subtle. In the first Ravel work, the progression points to sound effects, something that might have been written for a cartoon soundtrack, which is inevitably fun. The Pavane, a fairly well-known piece, opens with a liquid horn part that melts; here, we heard the same restraint as in the Beethoven, Lehninger always brilliantly careful not to go over the cliff of romantic notion. The final suite opened with effusive, crystalized parts in high registers, systematically slowing down to an insistent and bold ecstasy. I have never enjoyed Ravel as much as I did this night.
Throughout the evening, Lehninger seemed to have a clear but familiar relationship with the orchestra. Currently the music director of the New West Symphony Orchestra in Los Angeles and associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — an appointment at the hand of the great James Levine — Lehninger is a masterful talent to watch.