Making big statements with smaller resources is the central challenge of any Beethoven symphonic performance in COVID 19-era concerts — and one that, curiously, the Philadelphia Orchestra is handling better than many.
The orchestra’s trademark lush string sound is temporarily scaled back in the latest digital concert that includes Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Yefim Bronfman, streamed 8 p.m. Thursday through 11 p.m. Sunday. Fanned out over the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall stage for the sake of social distancing, the Philadelphia Orchestra is about half of its usual size with 33 players for Beethoven. Missy Mazzoli’s Ecstatic Science has six players (though the piece was written to be that way).
Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, especially, could’ve felt anemic, though music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin has long worked with Chamber Orchestra of Europe translating large-scale Romantic-era symphonies into a leaner sound that’s closer to what original audiences must have heard. The smaller sound takes on its own personality with less string vibrato, more prominent winds, and tough, militaristic sticks used on the timpani.
So often, the sturdier the musical idea, the less sound it really needs to speak. Most anything by J.S. Bach for example. These performances prove how Beethoven can be just as penetrating with a knife’s-edge quality to the sonority. And that’s hardly the first time that a COVID-era necessity becomes a development that could be kept when the concerts once again play to live audiences.
Contrary to the wildness promised by pianist Bronfman’s untamed hair, his reading of the concerto is smart, tidy, not likely to open new doors for listeners but details everything that the concerto is supposed to be. At times, his slight lingering over trills, pianissimos and other particularly wonderful parts in the first movement caused the tempo to wind down, which ultimately didn’t benefit the piece.
Bronfman’s trademark clean finger work and clear sonority delivered some particularly arresting second-movement moments while the orchestra’s contribution to the tuneful final movement had a subtle version of the radiant aura for which the orchestra is famous. Also, those fascinated by the physicality of Bronfman’s finger work will see it as never before thanks to the video direction by Alexey Alexandrov.
Since it’s chamber music, Mazzoli’s Ecstatic Science is exempt from any of these size theories, though the performance never sounded dwarfed by the Verizon Hall stage, even if it looked that way. In her video program notes, Mazzoli described the 2016 piece as living up to the implied opposition of “ecstatic” and “science,” talking about how much of the piece was composed with a mathematic mentality — until it’s not. She described the piece as a “highly organized grid that keeps exploding.”
It also has a world of emotions packed into it. The piece is built on a backdrop of long-held notes (often by strings) that seems to stand back and witness the more animated winds, sometimes acting almost like a medieval drone tone for lonely trumpet solos (among other things). The music’s restless momentum that doesn’t always seem to know where it’s going — until it’s ambushed by a trick ending. As usual, I hear something different from what the composer might’ve intended: Ecstasy may explode periodically but, to my ears, it’s always simmering,
Musical commentary can be the weak point of these kinds of streamings — too many generalizations and platitudes — but not this one. For the Beethoven section, orchestra violinist Barbara Govatos has an unusually personalized view of the Coriolan Overture discussing the composer’s use of silence, delivered with unpretentious charm and reminding you that for musicians who have spent a lifetime with great music, Beethoven isn’t some remote 19th Century figure. He’s family.
Tickets for the Dec. 10-13 streaming are $15 and available at www.philorch.org.