At Sunday afternoon’s concert of the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra, I noticed that a couple seated near me did not return after intermission for the second half of the program— Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. I can only hope they settled in to other seats downstairs at the Bijou, or were perhaps called away on a pressing matter. Otherwise, if they exited believing in the falsehood that the Fourth is a poor lyrical cousin to the Third and the Fifth Symphonies, they’ll now have to live the rest of their lives with the knowledge that they missed one of the most compelling performances of a Beethoven symphony I have yet heard in Knoxville.
There is, of course, endless writings on the place of the Fourth among the nine symphonies, with the most often quoted line coming from composer Robert Schumann: “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants.” However, for those who delight in mystery paired with liveliness, there is certainly no need for pity. Berlioz compared the opening movement to “…a river whose calm waters suddenly disappear and only leave the subterranean bed to plunge with a roar in a foaming waterfall.”
Maestro James Fellenbaum, the resident conductor of the KSO, was on the podium for this remarkable performance, one that was clean, focused, and razor-sharp in its control, yet passionate and warm in its display. I readily admit a partiality for the third movement (Allegro vivace) which is a test of an orchestra’s ensemble footing. In this case, the juxtaposition of the string pronouncements against the woodwind’s delicious runs was solid. Equally admirable was the woodwind performance in the finale, where humorous little statements are made by the oboe, then repeated by the flute and buoyed by the others in a feast of woodwind textures. All the while, the facile KSCO strings managed their footrace with charming dexterity.
The symphony was first performed in 1807 at a private concert that also featured the composer’s Coriolan Overture, a work that also opened Sunday’s KSCO concert. After the overture, cellist Wesley Baldwin, a UT School of Music faculty member, joined the orchestra for Boccherini’s Cello Concerto in B-flat. The concerto is, in fact, the creation of Friedrich Grützmacher, a late 19th century cellist and arranger who worked in the court at Dresden. Grützmacher reshaped the classicism of Boccherini’s original into something a bit more palatable for Romantic-era ears by replacing the second movement of Boccherini’s original with that of another concerto and using themes from other Boccherini works.
This hybrid work is massively charming, a quirky, if not eccentric mixture of Classical form and Romantic sensibilities. Baldwin, who is usually quite the passionate player, seemed more restrained on this occasion, with some of the structural irregularities in the work appearing to have him at a disadvantage, particularly on quick mid-passage statements. Nevertheless, the unusual tonality shifts that ventured into mysterious territory seemed to work overall, with Baldwin’s handling of the work’s intricacies while maintaining a deliciously warm cello tone being greatly appreciated and solidly rewarded.