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The fact that this program was titled “Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony” in the program booklet shows, I think, that it stood apart somewhat from many of the thematically conceived evenings offered by the North Carolina Symphony this season. It can be easy to forget that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 (Op. 93) is, despite the fact that the composer would only complete one more work in the genre, nevertheless a middle-period work, composed in 1812, and is perhaps the least often-played among his last five symphonies, with all of the others having more effective “hooks” in attaching themselves to the listener’s affections.
The Eighth is, however, my personal favorite, perfect for those moments when the hero can take a day off from storming the empyrean heights, or battling the depths of existential despair; it has the sunny perfection of a bright afternoon in early May, without a slow movement to speak of (the four movements are marked Allegro vivace e con brio, Allegretto scherzando, Tempo di Miuetto, and Allegro vivace), and the overall mood is that of a playful young genius with a Lego set, seeing how all the musical components fit together. Indeed, the very opening motive of the work seems to be more of a concluding gesture (and so it is used to close as well). Llewellyn led a platonically-perfect rendition of the work, all brightness and wit, with every detail in place (well, I did hear a false entrance by a single violin), a beautiful performance on a very high level.
The first half was completed by the dramatic scena by Beethoven, Ah! Perfido, Op. 65, for soprano and orchestra, which draws on a libretto by Metastasio from 1736, which develops the familiar trope of the woman, abandoned, who first curses her departed lover (cue lightning and thunder), and then realizes that no, she will be faithful, even if he is not. Beethoven faithfully follows the emotional trajectory indicated by the poetry, which leads to a slow and pathetically moving aria, “Per pietà.” Carrying the audience along with her passion was soprano Barbara Shirvis, a voice and name new to me, but who had a beautiful and perfectly controlled tone, with very clear Italian. She was highly effective in the dramatic moments, and produced a dramatic and distinct descending chromatic scale in the concluding moments of the scena. My only suggestion would be that she might have worked at being more intimate and heart-rending, more melodramatic in the old-fashioned sense, in the slow aria. Note to Llewellyn and the NCS: such dramatic concert works are not scarce in the repertoire, and as long as North Carolina has a less-than-burgeoning operatic scene (or even if it did), I for one would certainly be happy to hear them more often, particularly with such accomplished artists as Ms. Shirvis.
The second half took the listener to another world entirely, with the familiar Till Eulenspiegel, Op. 28, of Richard Strauss, in which the composer, expertly seconded by the fine players of the NCS, put on a virtuoso display of his mastery of nuances of orchestration (one realized how much the technical possibilities of all the winds had changed in the seventy years or so between the death of Beethoven and the writing of this work. Of course, in the century since then the volume of sound produced by the winds has increased as well, so much that the young person next to me stuck his fingers in his ears at the fortissimo.)
The climax of a memorable concert came with the concluding Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss from 1948, a time at which the composer’s vocabulary belong to a world that had been dead and gone at least since the First World War, but all the more otherworldly because of that. What this music requires is sustained sound, something that takes huge breath for the winds, and plenty of bow for the strings. Shirvis was at the top of her form here, with wonderfully drawn out vocal lines. My notes read “heartbreaking,” “sublime” (for “Beim Schlaffengehen”). The final song, “Im Abendrot,” moves toward death with astounding and yet logical and concordant harmonies, and closes with a decrescendo to inaudibility (or as close as physical instruments can get). Llewellyn managed – bravo – to hold the final silence for at least fifteen seconds, so as not to break the spell. North Carolina, be glad to have such music.