by Janelle Gelfand
Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 is one of the greatest statements of affirmation of all time. It has come to symbolize triumph over adversity - and even victory in World War II. It begins with perhaps the most famous four notes in music - the "fate knocking on the door" motif.
It was the first Beethoven symphony that Paavo Järvi conducted with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1999, two years before he became music director.
On Friday morning, Järvi, now in his 10th and final season, revisited Beethoven's Fifth. This was Beethoven like you've never heard it live before: bracing, powerful and inspiring. For listeners in Music Hall, it was an unforgettable occasion where great music meets orchestral virtuosity and precision.
The crowd was on its feet twice, because there was an equally impressive companion to Beethoven. Alexander Toradze delivered a masterful performance of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2, in a display of bravura, matched by beauty of tone.
Toradze, a native of Tbilisi, Georgia, is a professor at Indiana University, South Bend. He is one of the great romantic pianists endowed with a huge technique, the better to excel in the Russian repertoire. From his performance of Prokofiev's fiendishly difficult Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, he may be the world's most definitive interpreter of Prokofiev.
A master of touch and color, the pianist lingered on Prokofiev's distinctive chords, using lots of romantic "rubato" (give and take) in the slower passages. He summoned gorgeous atmosphere. The percussive passages exploded with power, and the pianist stomped his feet along with the music, occasionally rising out of his seat.
You could only marvel at the scherzo movement, which was breathtaking for his speed, clarity and seat-of-your-pants virtuosity. The slow movement, a barbaric march, lumbered like a heavy Russian bear. Yet whether the pianist was tackling keyboard-spanning feats or a little Russian melody, he approached it all with beauty of sound.
Toradze and Järvi were completely in synch, and the conductor, even in the most bombastic moments, never covered the pianist.
A longtime friend of the Järvi family (including Neeme Järvi, Paavo's father), Toradze and the conductor walked off the stage, arm in arm.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C Minor formed the program's second half. Järvi strode out and plunged without a pause into the opening "fate" motif, which was delivered with split-second precision. The momentum didn't let up until the last note of the symphony. Tempos were brisk, and the conductor's view was taut, urgent and intense. This was heaven-rending Beethoven, and every accent and detail was brought out.
The orchestra's playing was terrific. Horn calls were glorious. The strings were electrified and Jarvi galvanized the players, "bowing" the air along with the cellos.
The second movement was a genial contrast to the first, with bursts of power from brass and timpani. The basses were supercharged, as they led the surge from the scherzo to the finale.
Järvi led without a score, turning animatedly to each section and inspiring a fresh sense of discovery in every phrase. It was spontaneous and unpredictable - and it was as good as it gets.
(Järvi changed the orchestra's seating to be true to Beethoven's era, with the second violins facing the first violins.)
The program began with Franz Liszt's "Mephisto" Waltz No. 1, in the Cincinnati Symphony's second-ever performance. There were fine contributions from orchestral soloists, including a memorable solo by principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn.