The coronavirus pandemic may have shut down numerous Beethoven concerts during the composer's 250th birthday anniversary season, but one can't say he's been short-changed. In fact, this Beethoven-centric concert by the Houston Symphony was a late addition to the commemoration, offering an opportunity to experience Fabien Gabel's artistry in musical fare rooted firmly in the Austro-German sphere.

Yefim Bronfman
© Houston Symphony

For Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor the orchestra was joined by pianist Yefim Bronfman in a performance that could be best summarized as "soul-satisfying, with no rude surprises". Clearly, Bronfman is an old hand at this score and the music has settled in well under his fingers. No part of his performance came across as mannered or labored. The tempo in the opening Allegro con brio movement was relaxed, and despite the reduced Houston instrumental forces, the introduction came across as a "big orchestra" sound, rounded edges and all. Bronfman's playing was beautifully balanced with the orchestra, shining through in the places where it should but never "spotlit". His cadenza exuded both drama and poignancy, while the hushed strings in the final bars of the movement conveyed a true sense of mystery.

The Largo was a standout interpretation, beginning with the chorale-like piano solo, then joined by the flute and strings where the effect was magical. The movement is simplicity itself but Gabel and Bronfman imbued it with a sense of majesty as well. In the final Rondo, I might have wished for a slightly swifter tempo, but there was an incisiveness to Bronfman's playing that gave the movement its own sense of excitement, with a great flourish at the end. It was the kind of performance that left you smiling broadly.

Fabien Gabel conducts the Houston Symphony
© Houston Symphony

More Beethoven followed, his Symphony no. 6 in F major. It's classical music's first symphonic poem... and one that tells a very specific story. Gabel's opening Allegro certainly sounded like “awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside”, with singing strings and tight ensemble including a very effective cello choir in the middle of the movement. Gabel took the first movement repeat – not something I prefer – but in this case it worked fine.

The second movement could have been its own standalone piece, with the conductor quite literally conjuring up the sun's reflections in the water and warm rays on your face. The woodwinds had a chamber-like quality, including a fabulous bassoon, not to mention the birdcalls by the clarinet, flute and oboe which were quite special.

Pictorial imagery was on full display in the third movement as well, with exhilarating horn calls framing the melodious oboe and clarinet, along with a peasant dance that was so robust you could feel the heels clomping on the ground. Special mention is due to timpanist Leonardo Soto who got in some really great licks during the thunderstorm, and in the Finale the woodwinds had their opportunity to shine again, especially principal oboe Anne Leek for her particularly exceptional solo passages.

The short opening number of the concert was a stark change of pace, a celebratory fanfare by Stella Sung dating from 1993. It was an opportunity for the brass section of the Houston Symphony to shine in the fine performance that they delivered, but the really special moments of this concert belonged to Beethoven.

This performance was reviewed from the Houston Symphony video stream