BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Stefan Sanderling has been conducting Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, Eroica for 25 years.
"The first was in the summer of 1987 in Weimar, I think," Sanderling said last week, recalling his early days as a conductor in his native Germany. "It was one of my very first concerts. The Eroica is a piece I have known all my life. This is music I have grown up with. I was 23 then, and I am now almost 48."
So there is no better way to wind up the Florida Orchestra season than with a work that means so much to its music director. This weekend's performances will be the third time he has performed Beethoven's Third Symphony with the orchestra. Also on the program are Charbrier's Habanera and Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, with Martina Filjak, a Croatian, as the soloist.
Sanderling's interpretation of Beethoven has changed over the years. "You go for different things," he said. "You go for the excitement, and for the drama, and for the energy (as a young conductor). You do not abandon those things later on, but you try to find the second, third and fourth layers in it. I think there are 10 layers in this symphony, which is one of the centerpieces of Western culture."
The Eroica was revolutionary when it premiered in 1805. For one thing, the symphony begins oddly, with two forte chords of E-flat major.
"You set the tone with how you play these two notes: How quick they are, how decisive they are, how round they are, all this," Sanderling said. "Then is the first movement an aggressive movement? Is it a reflective movement? Every artist comes to a different conclusion at a different stage in his or her life."
Beethoven originally dedicated the Eroica — the "heroic" symphony — to Napoleon, but changed it when the French leader had himself crowned as Emperor in 1804. "In Beethoven's life, Napoleon played a huge role," Sanderling said. "He conquered Vienna, where Beethoven lived. It helps to understand why Beethoven felt certain things about Napoleon. Otherwise it just becomes a symphony. The Eroica, like no other Beethoven symphony, is a political statement."
In the past 20 or 30 years, the interpretation of Beethoven's nine symphonies has been much influenced by conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Roger Norrington, who perform the symphonies in a period style. David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle recorded a Beethoven cycle that blended modern instruments with a historical approach.
In some ways, all these recent interpretations are responding to the Beethoven recordings of two legendary conductors, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Arturo Toscanini. Furtwangler was known for his highly subjective, intellectual treatment of the symphonies, contrasted with Toscanini's quicker, more energetic performances.
Sanderling sees one difference between the two conductors in where each put the emotional heart of the Eroica, Toscanini in the Allegro con brio first movement, Furtwangler in the second movement's funeral march. As for his own interpretation, he seems to be leaning to the Furtwangler side of the ledger.
"There was a time in my life where I took the Eroica maybe too much as a serenade, too lightweight," he said. "Seeing the con brio and the high tempo in it. Now in a certain way I find more heavy moments in it."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.