Long ago in my former life as a teenage record store clerk, I recall a customer who came into the store one chilly, autumn evening. A ruddy-faced man in his 50s wearing a beige cashmere coat approached the counter with a bundle of box sets in his arms; his face nearly disappearing between his scarf and his wool hat, with only the tips of his black, horn-rimmed glasses seemingly visible amidst the swirl of plaid. As I rang him up for his purchases – among them reissues of recordings of the Beethoven symphonies by Kletzki, Cluytens, and Mengelberg – I asked him if he had heard the recent Abbado set of the symphonies. One could see the corners of his face contorting into a grimace. “No, no,” he intoned solemnly while shaking his head in disapproval, “the days of great Beethoven conducting are long dead.”

Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Philharmonic © Courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Philharmonic
© Courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

There are times, after being subjected to yet another powder-dry run-through of Beethoven’s music typical of today, when I’m inclined to agree with that sentiment. The style nowadays is a puritanical obsession with the score – at the cost of music itself.

But there are other times when one is confronted with performances that reinforce one’s faith that imaginative, searching musicianship are not a thing of the past. Last Friday night was such a night.

Even when things didn’t quite sync up, as when Leif Ove Andsnes joined the orchestra in the composer’s Piano Concerto no. 1, the results still managed to fascinate.

To be sure, neither Andsnes nor orchestra disappointed. To his role, Andsnes brought his usual crystalline touch; well-suited to the composer’s introspective side. But pianist and orchestra gave the impression of coming from two different worlds: Dudamel and the orchestra giving the music a lusty, peasant kick; Andsnes playing with patrician detachment. It was a dichotomy of approach particularly noticeable in the work’s finale where the orchestra brayed vigorously, while Andsnes continued along with cool, even frosty, aloofness.

Things improved when the orchestra returned in the second half for the same composer’s Symphony no. 3, “Eroica”. Not the chamber-scaled Beethoven-lite typical of today. This was “big band” Beethoven that made one think of Sir Thomas Beecham’s riposte to the Philadelphia Orchestra management when they tried to convince him to use a scaled-down orchestra for his performance of a Mozart symphony. “Oh, no,” he chortled into his beard, “I want the full orchestra. I want to hear a bloody row!”

The first movement was perhaps the least successful. It was fleet, vigorous, but lacking in dramatic heft. The grinding, dissonant climax at the movement’s heart came and went without much expression. The Funeral March that followed, however, was something else. Dignified, mournful, but never giving way to sentimentality, this was Beethoven in the grand manner that recalled podium greats of the past. Tempo never dragged, but was stately enough to give the music its requisite gravitas. When the march’s agonizing climax arrived, it was writ large; the very earth quaking in tearless grief. Boldness characterized the closing two movements, with some noble, heroic playing courtesy of the orchestra’s French horns. The finale seized the listener from beginning to end; Dudamel and the orchestra managing to make of it a near visceral thrill and allowing it, for once, to be an apt counterweight to the monumental opening movement. Cheers and a standing ovation quickly followed – well deserved.

I thought of that customer from all those years ago as I listened to that concert. Had he been able to listen to that performance, I felt, he may have considered rethinking his position. Certainly I did.