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MSO: Beethoven
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Program
Beethoven: Incidental Music to Goethe's Tragedy Egmont, Op. 84
Beethoven: Concerto in C Major for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 56
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92

Performers
Madison Symphony Orchestra
Debra Hogan, soprano
John Clark, baritone
Tyrone Grieve, violin
Warren Downs, cello
Howard Karp, piano
Roland Johnson, conductor

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Playing under the baton of Roland Johnson Saturday evening at the Oscar Mayer Theatre, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and guest artists presented an all-Beethoven program spanning the gamut of that great genius's gifts from not so wonderful to incomparable.

Some will consider it heresy to suggest that Beethoven's output was not all equal in quality to his great sonatas, quartets, concertos and symphonies, but the Incidental Music to Goethe's Tragedy "Egmont," Op. 84, ought to dispel that argument for good. On the positive side, the Overture is good enough to stand on its own, which it often does. It was played in good tempo and with clean articulation. But the remainder of the work, though liberally laced with brief moments of beauty, is so episodic it falls apart, and the individual sections are not of enough merit to redeem themselves, I think. In the two embedded songs, soprano Debra Hogan, who has a good voice, was at too great a disadvantage -- Beethoven was even less kind to singers than to string players, when it comes to difficult parts -- to give a memorable performance. Rev. John Clark, who does not have a good voice, only heightened the bombast and grandiloquence of the lengthy exhoration to do great things that preceded the concluding Victory Symphony. Even allowing for the bygone era, both the text and the music are a too much to take.

The Concerto in C Major for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 56 is also not on the highest level of Beethoven's attainments. It's formally anything but economical, and to succeed at all, it requires three soloists of absolutely superlative artistry. Unfortunately, this performance had but one, pianist Howard Karp, whose playing was solid, accurate, sparklingly clear, and acutely attentive to his partners. But both violinist Tryone Grieive and cellist Warren Downs, the MSO's regular principals in their respective sections, were plagued by nervousness, noticeable gaffes and intonation problems, as well as overall timidity. To be sure, both parts, the cello one especially, are well-nigh impossible. But despite some very competent playing Downs invariably had a small, distant and somewhat muffled sound, which with such a large orchestra and a powerful pianist just got lost too much of the time. Greive, by contrast, managed to play out quite nicely here and there, but there were too many occasions when the notes got away from him. The piano, mercifully, was rented, rather than the Civic Center's own instrument. That and a particularly artful tuning made it sing out gloriously under Karp's hands.

No discernible problem of any kind attended the closing work on this gargantuan program. The Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 was from beginning to end absolutely first-rate. The tempos were just, especially in the allegretto (second) movement, which is usually played too slowly. Dynamics were beautifully balanced, and individual solo sections, oboe and clarinet particularly, were a joy to hear. Brasses were clarion-clear throughout. Strings played together and in good tune. Johnson can be justly proud, I think, of this very fine performance of one of the greatest symphonies ever written. One more great symphony and one more great choral work, both by Brahms, now separate him from retirement. I both would and wouldn't want to be in his shoes when that day comes, May 14th.

Isthmus, March, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson




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