This all-Beethoven concert by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta was originally planned for last year, commemorating the composer’s 250th birthday anniversary. As with so many other concerts across the globe, Covid-19 put an end to that – but as it turned out, the wait was well worth it.

JoAnn Falletta
© Cheryl Gorski

The Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op.67 by Beethoven is usually thought of as the composer’s most famous composition – maybe even the most famous piece in all of classical music. For all its fame, it isn’t presented in concert as often as several other Beethoven symphonies; indeed, the number of Bachtrack reviews published for the Third and Seventh Symphonies is substantially higher. In today’s performance, Falletta and the musicians gave an opportunity to hear the piece with fresh ears. The interpretive approach was high on dramatic flair, but not relentlessly driven as can sometimes be the case. I’d characterize it as “Toscanini with heart”; with Falletta, each important phrase had its direction, but with deft variances of the tempos, melodic lines and rhythmic accents done in ways that gave the symphony a freshness and appeal that went beyond the usual.

It made for a musical journey in which the opening Allegro con brio provided the foundation upon which the three movements that followed could be built, rather than using up all the musical energy with no place to go next. There was a definite musical narrative and an emotional arc to this presentation of the symphony, where the quieter passion of the middle movements delivered just as many emotional dividends as the two more extroverted outer ones.

The quality of the playing was exemplary. Perhaps it was due to where I was sitting in the concert hall, but at times the horns and trumpets seemed a little overpowering of the string players, who for this concert were slightly trimmed in number. Even so, the string ensemble was precise and full-bodied, with memorably effective passages by the viola, cello and bass sections in the Andante and Scherzo movements in particular. On balance, I’d characterize this Beethoven’s Fifth as a highly fulfilling performance of a piece that can sometimes come across as sounding too routine and predictable.

Also presented at this concert was the Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major, Op.73, featuring Olga Kern as soloist. This was an equally dramatic presentation of Beethoven’s crowning concertante achievement. In the first movement, Kern’s stentorian opening flourish set the stage for bravura pianism alternating with Beethoven’s brilliant orchestral passages. Under Falletta’s direction, the musical give-and-take between Kern and the players was a joy to hear.

I was also quite taken with the contrasting second movement Adagio where delicate muted strings and winds graced the poetic piano phrases: the effect was magical. The concluding Rondo movement was full of gusto. The main theme as introduced by the piano seemed a tad heavy-handed; still, it was hard not to be swept away in the spirit of the dance, so infectious was the music’s swagger. Orchestral tuttis were terrifically exciting, as was Olga Kern’s note-perfect presentation and technical prowess displayed throughout the concerto.

Taken as a whole, this concert of “Beethoven’s Fives” was a highly enjoyable journey with two well-familiar pieces – and a voyage that seemed just a little more special this time around.