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Updated Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 09:44 PM

Beethoven loses to Piazzolla at the Seattle Symphony | Concert Review

By Bernard Jacobson
Special to The Seattle Times

Concert Review |

Ludwig inserted voices into the symphonic world. Ludovic — different language, same name — responded by adding dance to the concert experience.

Of all the works the Seattle Symphony has come up with as companion pieces for its end-of-year Beethoven Ninth Symphony performances, music by tango specialist Astor Piazzolla might seem the most improbable. But the Argentine composer's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires," a tribute both to his country's capital and to Vivaldi's famous "Four Seasons," made a delightful start to Friday's concert.

A little less than a half-hour long, it was played in an effective string-orchestra arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov. SSO music director Ludovic Morlot led a sparkling performance by the orchestra's strings.

Adding to the fun was the contribution of a remarkably attractive pair of tango dancers, Eva Lucero and Patricio Touceda, who realized the latter's choreography with a grace and intensity that rendered this probably the sexiest performance so far witnessed in Benaroya Hall. Elisa Barston, too, played the virtuoso solo violin part brilliantly and even took a brief turn dancing very creditably with Touceda when the implicit narrative demanded it.

All this seemed like the start of a dream evening, but alas, the other half of the program fell far below expectations. Morlot has, in his 16 months at the head of the orchestra, demonstrated mastery in many areas of the repertoire, and some outside it. But it would be unreasonable to expect a young conductor to be good at everything. Results to date have suggested that Beethoven is not yet his strong suit, and this Ninth Symphony did nothing to dispel that impression.

The trouble was partly textural. Perhaps the idea was to emphasize the work's 18th-century ancestry. But the extreme lightness of sonority robbed the monumental work of nine-tenths of its grandeur. With only six double-basses and eight cellos on stage, there was a fatal lack of the rich lower-strings foundation that anyone who has ever heard the work played by, say, a master like Wilhelm Furtwängler knows is crucial to its effect — and those speaking recitatives at the start of the finale lacked both eloquence and rhetorical force.

The woodwinds did much excellent work, but any number of orchestral textures, especially those featuring the horns, were skated over. The two themes of the slow movement should move at different speeds, but didn't. The Seattle Symphony Chorale, so good in "Messiah" two weeks ago, was less convincing this time, its diction often vague.

Of the vocal soloists, bass Eric Owens sang his opening recitative splendidly, but Clifton Forbis' military-march tenor solo paid insufficient attention to the deliberate breaks in the line. And these two were allowed to sing so loud in the last solo ensemble that there was no telling whether the soprano hit her top B successfully or not.

Such faults will surely be eradicated in the future. Morlot is too gifted — and too serious — an artist to allow his Beethoven to remain for long at so rudimentary a level. But for Piazzolla to overshadow Beethoven so drastically was a disconcerting (no pun intended) turn of events.

Bernard Jacobson: bernardijacobson@comcast.net

Additional performances

Seattle Symphony

Beethoven's Ninth and Astor Piazzolla's "The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires," 2 p.m. Sunday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $28-$128 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org).

New Year's Eve Concert

Countdown and celebration, 9 p.m. Monday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $52-$152 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org).

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