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Music Review

Beethoven's youthful snap

The composer regains his impetuous qualities in a Bowl program by

July 16, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Tuesday was, at the Hollywood Bowl, a night of seconds and of Seconds. The Los Angeles Philharmonic program centered on Beethoven's least performed piano concerto (the Second) and least popular symphony (the Second). Both are relatively early works and hardly, of course, obscure. But together, the Second Piano Concerto, which Beethoven began when he was in his early 20s, and his Second Symphony, which was premiered a decade later, offer a nice example of a revolutionary composer-to-be coming out of his classical upbringing.

Bramwell Tovey, the orchestra's principal guest conductor at the Bowl, was back as genial host for the program, which repeats tonight. He began with Beethoven's overture to Goethe's "Egmont." It was a hot-tempered soundtrack for picnickers to pack up their baskets (as if). But this popular overture also served to show where Beethoven was heading in his earlier works.

In his spoken introductions, Tovey placed everything in a political context. The 1810 "Egmont" represents Beethoven the tyranny-fighter disillusioned by Napoleon. The Second Piano Concerto, which was the first written, had its first performance in 1795. Tovey pointed out a tenuous connection between an idealistic young composer and America, an idealistic young country.

A British pianist, Paul Lewis, in his Bowl debut, was soloist and played as if every note were fresh. The concerto is often interpreted as Beethoven putting his stamp on the Mozartean model, and there was a touch of that in this performance. Lewis specializes in Beethoven and Schubert. He has a clear, crisp touch. His rhythms spring and his Beethoven dances.

He does not, though, have a big sound. Lewis' Beethoven sonata recordings are much lauded, and their appeal, like those of Alfred Brendel or Murray Perahia, is in their interiority. Such lucid and understated playing takes on a special immediacy when amplified and directed to the ear by loudspeakers or headphones. A listener begins to believe he can channel Beethoven.

Obviously, not much Beethovenian intimacy is possible with an audience in an 18,000-seat amphitheater and a slight-toned pianist on the distant, fat Bowl stage. But there are video screens and amplification, and when used properly they can help. And so they did here.

Lewis brought a sense of fun to the first movement, especially to his balletic run-through of the cadenza. The Adagio was on the weighty, labor-intensive side but had a lovely lyrical sway. Good-natured athleticism came at the end. Hints of a composer who would hammer like none before him were neither disavowed nor exaggerated.

Tovey presented an original theory of the Second Symphony. Beethoven was still in his Napoleonic phase. Napoleon was in his run-amok-through-Europe phase, and the snap of Italian music was what fired Bonaparte's cylinders. Beethoven took that Italianate snap, Tovey suggested, and made it even snappier with his sforzandos, those highly charged accents. Tovey conducted a large-orchestra Second. He evidently tried to keep the textures light but also to knock out sforzandos with flair. Unfortunately, they came back at him like sonic boomerangs.

When the super-sized new shell was installed five years ago, it exacerbated the problems with echo in the amphitheater, and Tuesday they were the worst I'd ever heard. Tovey told the audience that no one in the orchestra could last remember when the Beethoven Second had been performed in the Bowl. That may be for good reason, given all those sharp accents that bite back acoustically.

The fact that the amplification gets yearly refinements may also have contributed to the nasty effect, since the sound is now more satisfyingly focused than it used to be. In any case, there were moments when one chord was hit, returned as an echo during the attack of a second chord and we entered into a situation of polytonality. Beethoven was revolutionary, but, at 32, not that much of a revolutionary.

What's to be done? All the hard surfaces around the Bowl must be treated. What's the expense? A Napoleonic ransom, no doubt.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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Los Angeles Philharmonic

Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood

When: 8 tonight

Price: $1 to $126

Contact: (323) 850-2000 or www.hollywoodbowl.com

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