Though many people were probably filled with anticipation for the Quad City Symphony Orchestra season opener this past weekend, the Saturday concert turned out to be a mixed bag. In an all-Beethoven program, the first half featured an unfortunate and grim Symphony No. 7, while the second half showcased a brilliant Triple Concerto (concerto for violin, cello, and piano). Hometown products Greg and Tom Sauer and Tom Sauer’s wife, Serena Canin, led the orchestra in the performance of the concerto.

Unfortunately for the Sauer-Canin Trio, it performed after a problematic Symphony No. 7. Not only did the reading suffer from orchestral playing – namely in the horns and during the final movement – but the interpretation offered by Maestro Donald Schleicher was plodding in parts, effectively eviscerating the dance elements in the work.

Schelicher began the work admirably enough. Controlling the music, it was clear he was looking for a more purposeful interpretation. That’s fine as long as the rest of the work is allowed to blossom. But in the second movement, an Allegretto, Schleicher took it down a notch, preferring a slower, more traditional performance, despite Beethoven’s own markings. It is in this movement that the dance elements are consumed by the concern for unequivocal pathos.

Schleicher and the orchestra sped things up for the Presto – one of Beethoven’s most famous scherzos ever. Though probably slower than originally intended, the orchestra moved along at a brisk pace, and successfully resurrected the momentum it lost in the plodding second movement.

But the performance fell apart again. This time, it was not so much the fault of Schleicher, who clearly wanted to push the music and the orchestra further; instead, the orchestra sounded overwhelmed by the furious maelstrom of sound. At times, players seemed completely disconnected from the music. Adding to the woes, the horns managed to shrink during nearly every entry in the final movement. Generally speaking, the atypical arrangement of the orchestra used to highlight Beethoven’s antiphonal composition style hides the basses and cellos.

Despite the rocky start, the orchestra regrouped and capably performed the much easier Triple Concerto. Although soloists sometimes blaze their own path and force a voice independent of their partners, Tom Sauer, Greg Sauer, and Serena Canin held together well as a trio. They reacted to the music as a unit and not individual voices. But it was Greg Sauer who mesmerized the ears with his sublime cello work. Serena Canin was admirable with her inspired violin playing, and Tom Sauer made the banal piano writing sparkle. The orchestra came through as well, serving as a balanced accompaniment to the efforts of the solo trio.

Sidebar: Understanding Beethoven

What Beethoven might lack in prolific output compared to Haydn, Mozart, and Bach, he more than made up for with musical inventiveness and his willingness to push the boundaries of musical form.

Two works stand as examples of Beethoven’s genius and his willingness to make inroads in classical form and composition. The first is Beethoven’s seldom played Triple Concerto for violin, piano, and cello. The second is his monumental Symphony No. 7, described by Richard Wagner as the “apotheosis of the dance.” Though both pieces fall generally in Beethoven’s relatively prolific middle period, they blaze divergent paths while at the same time highlighting the composer’s genius.

For instance, the Triple Concerto resurrects the concertante and concerto grosso form of the Baroque and Classical eras. Beethoven, also for the first time, elevated the cellos from the cellars of accompaniment to the position of a legitimate solo instrument. The cello is richly written for and by itself stands as a testament to the brilliance of the work.

In fact, the cello of the trio anchors the entire piece. Though Beethoven had mastered piano and violin composition, these two parts tend to be shallow in the depth of skill required to perform them. It is even hypothesized that at the very least the piano part of the concerto was intended for a relatively unskilled Beethoven pupil, the Archduke Rudolph.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 continued the trend of reinventing symphonic form with each new work. The symphony was written during a particularly grim period of Beethoven’s life. Austria continued to lose battles, men, and land at the hands of the French. He had become completely deaf. And the composer had fallen in love with a married woman. Perhaps the work also marks an effort to push out from the classical constraints he had become accustomed to and chart new romantic territory.

The slow and stately introduction is one of Beethoven’s most expansive movements ever. The music slowly and carefully builds in intensity. One gets the distinct impression that Beethoven wants to let things fly but holds back.

The second movement eschews the traditional slow-movement trend. Yet even though it’s an Allegretto, conductors generally refuse to move the playing as quickly as Beethoven indicated. Conductors prefer to accentuate the pathos of the movement, drawing on its more funeral-like qualities.

The third movement, a scherzo, is one of Beethoven’s most dynamic. Again a fast movement, Beethoven instructs it to be performed at roughly 84 measures a minute. Prior to the Symphony No. 7, no movement had been scored for such rapid playing. Beethoven’s use of internal repeats is illuminating though sometimes ignored by conductors.

In the final movement, Beethoven abandons the obsessive control he exerted in the first movement. He allows the orchestra to feverishly swirl and develop. The listener gets the distinct impression that Beethoven used the entire work to build to this point.

Despite performance trends to the contrary, Beethoven shucks the idea that there must be a slow movement. Without the slow movement, the symphony builds with a sustained forward momentum. Beethoven also imbues every nook of the work with throbbing dance components.

Suggested Recordings:

Symphony No. 7 – Vienna Philharmonic, Carlos Kleiber (DG 447 400-2)

Triple Concerto – Yo Yo Ma, Isaac Stern, Daniel Brenboim, Berlin Philharmonic (EMI CDC5 55516-2); Beaux Arts Trio, Kurt Masur, Leipzig Gwendhaus Orchestra (Phillips 438-005-2)

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