Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Beethoven symphony cycle

Royal Albert Hall, 20-27 July 2012

Third movement of Beethoven's ninth symphony.
Performed by the East-West Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim at the Proms 2012

Beethoven's transformation of the symphony can still seem magnificent, especially when played like this.

As if to show that London's musical celebrities can match its sporting ones, the Proms hosted Daniel Barenboim for the complete Beethoven symphonies the week before the Olympics. All seats were sold out, even in this vast hall, and hundreds more people were able to stand for £5 per concert - as usual, I am amazed by the incredible accessibility of the Proms.

It was an opportunity to consider these symphonies as a whole. It's hard to avoid doing this, though the composer surely didn't imagine a 'cycle', nor did he necessarily feel he was exploring anything in writing these works, though it is easy to read such ideas back into them, as probably every subsequent composer of symphonies has done.

Part of their appeal as a whole is that we can experience the composer experimenting with the form of a symphony, which had previously been closely linked to suites of dances, albeit with a specialised opening movement and a pattern for the tempi of the dances. Beethoven moved the music away from the dance, giving each of the four movements their own character.

His reputation as a profound and spiritual communicator partly rests on what he did to the slow movement, which became an extraordinary funeral march in his Third symphony. In the Fourth it takes on a song-like mournfulness, though Haydn had done something similar earlier. But in the Ninth, the slow movement intensifies such that it seems to exist on a different, more communicative, plane than even these earlier achievements.

The fast movement was also notably transformed over time, and this change is perhaps more characteristic of the composer, as it can be detected earlier on, in the Second symphony. It retains most of the dance quality he inherited from previous symphonists, but is much lighter and more humorous, and forms a counterweight to the slow movements becoming ever more portentous.

His changes to the inner movements are what we think of when we think of 'placing' his symphonies, but I was struck by the changes he also needed to make in the outer movements.

The 'finale problem' emerges - how to write music that follows a profound slow movement, even if its immediate spell has been broken by a light fast movement? Beethoven's slow movements can be so powerful that we feel the finale needs something extra.

The finale of the Third oscillates wildly, the Fourth has eigtheenth-century comic warmth, the Fifth storms upwards out of darkness into light, and so on, until by the Ninth the weight of the slow movement is so great that the composer essentially cheats and throws everything into a choral finale that successfully distracts us through gargantuan treatment of a memorable tune.

In these performances, I was also struck by the changes Beethoven makes in his first movements. At the first concert, of the first two symphonies, audience members applauded the end of each of the first movements. I sympathised: each movement sounded like a self-contained overture. In subsequent concerts, nobody applauded after a first movement, as it was clear that these movements, however complex, were not self-contained.

Perhaps this ability to make each movement seem characterful but in transition, awaiting the next movement, is the composer's greatest symphonic achievement, and the reason why his works set the standard for subsequent composers. It also helps explain the problem with finales, and raises the question of whether he could have avoided cheating in the finale of the Ninth, and written it in purely instrumental form.

Barenboim's vision of the works, and the East-West Diwan orchestra's playing, seems secondary to the opportunity given for reflecting on their meaning. These were large scale performances, not overtly influenced by current ideas on how to do Beethoven, but conveying a tremendous sense of weight and significance.

This approach worked best in the Third and Fourth, performances that temporarily convinced me these were the greatest of all symphonies. The Eighth was elephantine, which confirms that it can be interpreted in widely different ways, and the Fifth felt like a single thrusting movement, fairly short at that. The Sixth sounded Straussian (Johann not Richard), which works. My only significant quibble in the entire series would be the finale of the Seventh, which didn't become the whirlwind it ideally needs to be.

The finale of the Ninth might have been written for the Royal Albert Hall, and I can't imagine a performance of it failing. I think it gives greater credit to the performers that the slow movement was so communicative, as can be heard above.

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