Beethoven's Egmont Overture makes many conductors tremble. The way to disentangle yourself from fear is through careful analysis and deep understanding. Here are some short notes on what I've learned from conducting this masterwork.
The play is a testimony of liberty told through Count Egmont's fight against the despotic Duke of Alba. Eventually Egmont is imprisoned and sentenced to death, but this uncovers a profound victory: that oppression transforms into liberty when people persist in their strong will for freedom.
The Enlightenment period, of which both Goethe and Beethoven were apart, sought to overturn despotic rule. These ideals persists, and it's with that spirit that the works of Beethoven stay alive and relevant.
The overture begins in the key of oppression, with a dark and burdensome unison f sounding across the entire orchestra. Heavy chords in the strings follow, and they brilliantly resemble the rhythm of a sarabande. Since the play is about the oppression caused by Spanish invaders, the connection with dance music is both surprising and telling. A dance is the foremost physical expression of freedom, and yet this rhythm is disguised as a dark and imprisoned set of chords. As a matter of interpretation, to bring about the full impact of this effect, the second half note of each bar should be emphasized.
Measures 5-9 feature interwoven woodwind and string appoggiaturas that are really madrigal sighs. The higher notes of each set can therefore be emphasized with vibrato in order to bring about a crying quality -- the notes represent peasants that are oppressed by despotic Spanish rule.
Then the second F resonates louder than before (marked double forte) and without a fermata. This F needs to be more urgent and shorter than the opening as more forces join the sarabande chords at measure ten. After more madrigal sighs in the woodwinds, we finally approach light as we enter the key of D-flat major.
The emphasis through this passage (m.15-22) should still be on beat two. I think the most important thing about this section is the instrumental color. Notice how the second trumpet enters with a low C at measure 17, and how the first bassoon takes over the line at measure 18. In order to bring out all of the colors that are created by a doubling the first violin's melody, the violins should play over the finger board. Why? Because this dampens the harmonics and allows the other sounds to blend.
The final three measures features three different dynamic markings. The oboes and clarinets share a line that is marked espressivo, but the following instance occurs at piano in the celli and finally at pianissimo with the first violins and celli in the final bar before "the fight" for liberty begins. This represents the silence before the storm, so to speak.