It's probably as close as the Utah Symphony is likely to come to a period performance of Beethoven - i.e., period costumes as opposed to period instruments. Even then, the costumes were confined to members of the audience, and that onstage.
For there Thursday night in Symphony Hall, for the second concert of its five-day Beethoven Festival, the orchestra presented what music director Joseph Silverstein called "an evening which could have taken place at the home of the Count and Countess von Lobkowitz," a chamber program featuring him on violin, this week's guest soloist Garrick Ohlsson on piano and principals of the orchestra in the E flat major Septet.Around them, listening in suitable awe, were 13 figures in early-19th-century dress representing various of the composer's patrons and intimates, including the "Immortal Beloved" (here masked).
But I suspect most of that, and the less specific period set, was forgotten once the music began. For without further ado, Silverstein and Ohlsson launched into an electrifying performance of the "Kreutzer" Sonata, written in 1803 for Beethoven himself and the mullato violinist George Bridgetower. (Ironically the eventual dedicatee, the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, refused to play it.)
That is not a word I use very often to describe Silverstein's playing. But here you could almost see the sparks fly as the two performers drew fire from one another. Not surprisingly, the pianist was for once at least an equal partner. But even with the care Ohlsson took not to overwhelm his colleague, Silverstein's presence was felt throughout, whether in the briskly articulated first-movement Presto (for which his tone took on an appropriate edge) or his more naturally expressive approach to the central theme and variations.
Were that not enough, after an explosively detonated finale Ohlsson followed with a titanic account of another of the master's most popular works, the "Appassionata" Sonata from 1806.
Occasionally this performance's passion seemed a trifle studied. But there was no disputing its power, from the surging climaxes of the opening movement, here forcefully projected, to the heaven-storming finale, almost incendiary in its effect. Or its clarity, as striking in the most tumultuous passages as in the sparkling 32nd notes of the Andante.
Actually, as the program notes reminded us, in Beethoven's day it was the Septet that was the most popular of his works, a fact that caused him no little irritation once he had moved on to bigger and better things. Still, its rustic good humor is not to be discounted, nor its having been modeled on Mozart while retaining a Beethovenian character of its own.
Here that character was apparent in a reading that, at its best, was long on cultivation and charm but at its worst (e.g., the viola and cello solos of the middle movements) tended to lose focus. That did not take away from the silken sound of clarinetist Christie Lundquist, however, or the golden-hued horn of Shelley Showers. Or Silverstein's fiddling, deftly patrician throughout.