Jaap van Zweden’s long-awaited Beethoven Fifth does not disappoint

By Truman C. Wang

Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden’s reputation has preceded him long before his L.A. Phil debut on Sunday to conduct his signature work – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.   His conducting of this work so captivated the New York Philharmonic headhunters back in 2012 that they made him the new Music Director, effective next season, beating out Pittsburgh’s Manfred Honeck. 

From his early career as the youngest concertmaster of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, to his orchestra-building efforts at the Dallas Symphony that garnered him Musical America’s 2012 Conductor of the Year, Jaap van Zweden has breathed a fresh new life into the standard core repertoire and made the audience sit up and listen with excited anticipation.

And what an exciting, yet nuanced, reading of the Beethoven Fifth!   It was as if maestro Van Zweden had taken the finer details of the period instruments practice and applied them to the greater force of the modern orchestra.  From the famous opening ‘fate’ motif, the listener was treated to a thrilling roller-coaster ride of light and darkness, purposeful and suspenseful, lyrical and dramatic.  Most memorable was the heart-stopping crescendo, in a long tempo rubato, from the C minor darkness of the Scherzo to the C-major triumphant theme of the finale.  This was arguably the finest account of the Beethoven Fifth since Carlos Kleiber’s legendary DG recording.

Van Zweden’s Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 was no less fine.  The lush, mellifluous strings in the famous first movement magically transformed the L.A. Phil into the fabled Concertgebouw for a brief shining moment.  Throughout the large-scale forty-minute symphony, maestro Van Zweden maintained a conventional measured tempo and a massive sweep with no loss of spaciousness or eloquence.  The second movement had the right bite and irony of a Shostakovich scherzo.  The third movement was an intense exploration of despair which erupted into the stunning brilliance of the finale with a ferocity of the Beethoven Fifth finale.

In this superb concert, Jaap Van Zweden put a stamp of greatness on two of the most popular symphonies in the repertoire.  We wish him the very best at the New York Philharmonic and hope for his speedy return to L.A.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.