Illness forced Chicago Symphony Music Director Riccardo Muti to bow out of two weeks of concerts in which he was scheduled to lead the ensemble—two crucial weeks, since they will precede a tour of the Far East. In his place, Dutch conductor Edo de Waart, music director of the Milwaukee Symphony, replaces him at the last minute for both the all-Beethoven concert, which receives its final performance tonight, Tuesday the 15th, and for the Mozart and Brahms program that runs this Thursday through Saturday.
The Wednesday concert I attended is part of the “Afterwork Masterworks” series, which, on several Wednesdays throughout the season at 6:30, allows those who work downtown to take an early dinner, see an abridged concert, and be on their way home before 8:00. The abridgement in question is Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which Radu Lupu, an eminent Romanian pianist, received praise for in the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday performances, but which was excised from the short Wednesday concert, which consisted only of the Leonore Overture No. 3 and the Eroica Symphony.
Although Beethoven wrote a number of concert overtures unrelated to any longer work (“Consecration of the House,” “Feastday,” “Coriolan”), he wrote three for his only opera, which would later be titled Fidelio, before writing the overture he ended up using. No. 3 is the longest and by far the most infamous, since Gustav Mahler decided later in the nineteenth century to insert it in the opera’s second act during a scene change. (I personally prefer No. 1, which, despite the numbering, was written a year later.) The Symphony took moderate tempi throughout the evening, but the overture, which lasted roughly sixteen minutes, was perhaps slightly slower than average, though the substitute conductor handled it with assured, workmanlike poise. The solos the work calls for, both in the flute and off-stage trumpet, came off without incident.
Beethoven’s Third Symphony, nicknamed the Eroica, holds an illustrious place in music history, and its 1805 premiere has been credited with beginning Romanticism in Western art music—no small achievement. It runs fifty minutes, twice the length of the conventional eighteenth-century symphony and Beethoven’s first two forays into the genre (c. 1799 and c. 1802), which are innovative but not revolutionary -- and some performances close in on an hour in length. It was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, but when Beethoven heard of Napoleon’s declaring himself Emperor of the French in 1804, he flew into one of his infamous fits of rage, and scratched out the dedication with the nearest available knife.
Wednesday’s performance observed repeats that are often elided, and was certainly without the tremendous energy that Muti would have imparted—as we saw with the performance of Brahms’s First Symphony at the start of the season—but de Waart nevertheless gave the piece a clear architecture that blossomed more in the second-movement funeral march than in any of the faster movements, though the pacing of the scherzo built effectively, reminiscent of the finale to the composer’s Seventh Symphony which I commented on in the autumn. He conducted the funeral march, it should be noted, freehand, without the use of a baton, and I credit this practice (which Pierre Boulez, whom we will hear next month, has adopted permanently) for part of the ethos that placed this movement closer to profundity than anything else we heard last Wednesday.