Review: Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 2, 4 & 5

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The third chapter of the HK Phil’s Beethoven cycle brought together a trio of early and mid-symphonies. Whereas Beethoven’s Fifth is a universal crowd-pleaser and its famous four-note motif needs no embellishment, the Second and Fourth require a bit more work to bring to life. They suffer from the all-too-familiar “middle child syndrome” – Symphony No. 2 was so poorly received at its 1803 début that one critic compared the opening of the last movement to “a flatulence followed by a groan of pain.” Unfazed by the challenge, music director Jaap van Zweden found a way to turn the ugly sisters into Cinderella and sweep the audience off its feet.

Smaller symphonic works have always been the HK Phil’s forte, and their tight rendition of Symphony No. 2 provided ample evidence of that. The ensemble worked together with clockwork precision, adding a sense of urgency that blended exuberance with aplomb. The larghetto second movement spoke of the composer’s happier days before his world was upended by worsening deafness, and the orchestra brought the fleeting beauty life to the fore. Once again, principal flutist Megan Sterling stood out with her delivery of flawless, sinuous lines. Her solo career, if she chooses to pursue one, will give good ole James Galway a run for his money.

Beethoven wrote Symphony No. 4 while sojourning at his benefactor Prince Lichnowsky’s country estate outside Vienna. By then, the composer’s hearing had deteriorated considerably and the telling, almost ominous, adagio introduction to the first movement reflected his growing despair. Van Zweden took his time building the suspense, before he led the orchestra to a spirited main theme that signifies hope and resilience. The same sensitivity continued into the pastoral second movement. Shortly after the recapitulation, the dawn-like clarinet floated a beautiful pianissimo on top of undulating strings and timpani, before handing the delicate melody to the cooing bassoon and fluttering flute. Moments like that were nothing short of magical.

If the Ninth is the grand finale of the Beethoven cycle, then the Fifth is undoubtedly its climax. The work is jam-packed with rich expositions and genius variations, each a seminal moment in classical music composition. Excitement filled the concert hall after the intermission, as members of the audience returned to their seats with palpable anticipation. They leaned in for the fatalistic allegro con brio, sat back to drink up the lyrical andante con moto, and braced themselves for the epic swell that tied the cunning scherzo to the victorious allegro. The final movement was rendered with such passion that the strings got carried away and the playing was marred by tempo issues. But therein lies the joy of going to a live performance: raw emotions and minor flaws can be overlooked and even celebrated as quirks and spontaneity. What a night! Jason Y. Ng

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