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.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Hollow Crown

BBC, July 2012

Richard II dying as Saint Sebastian, one of the more intriguing, and odd images from the first part of the series.

Shakespeare’s great history tetralogy flattened into a TV costume drama, but still an incredibly powerful (and draining) examination of glory. 

This is the BBC’s cultural contribution to a summer celebrating the Olympics in London and the British Queen’s sixtieth jubilee. It should long outlast these tenuous associations.

A ‘hollow crown’ doesn’t strike me as the right image for this cycle of Shakespeare’s history dramas, Richard II, both parts of Henry IV and Henry V. A quote from the hapless Richard, it requires cunning to apply it to Henry V, widely regarded as the greatest English hero in the author’s time, and now forgotten except as the elevated hero of his drama. 

A better metaphor for these films might involve the sun, at first clouded and then shining forth. This is how both the foolish Richard and the brilliant Henry see themselves, and the eclipse of the first is necessary for the advent of the second. 

With the exception of Henry IV part 2, these four dramas could stand alone, and often do, powerfully. Put together, something even greater emerges (again the sun metaphor).  

Broadly, we see the removal of a weak leader eventually in favour of a strong one. Take just the example of the Welsh. Richard loses their favour, Henry IV must fight with them, until Henry V unites them in his victorious band of brothers.

It is jarring that Thea Sharrock, director of Henry V, starts and ends with the king’s too-young dead body, even if this is hinted by the Chorus. As an attempt to show the follies of imperial ambition, this is timely and fits with the ‘hollow crown’ concept, but it goes completely against what we have previously experienced of Henry V. 

That Shakespeare was nuanced even in his portrayal of a great conquering hero, is to his eternal credit. But I think directors fail when they try to detract further from Harry’s greatness, for it’s fairly clear we see him as great, even if we no longer feel war is glorious (or do we? Many of us apparently do)

Henry is as great a hero as ever depicted, as great as Homer's Achilles or the Hebrew Bible's David, and in no way tragic. We are rightly uneasy with his kind of heroism, but then again, Shakespeare is there before us, if we consider these dramas a tetralogy. Prince Hal is given the greatest possible foil, in mighty Falstaff.  

For Henry’s later successful quest for glory, we have Falstaff’s earlier credo against it. At an only slightly lesser leverl, we also have Hotspur’s failed example. Some scholars seek a theory of success from these contrasts, but my experience, when watching these dramas, is one of random chance. Hotspur is just unlucky.  

Likewise Richard, who after all, goes to Ireland in order to live up to his bloodthirsty predecessors in glory. That he shares something of Hal’s poetic nature, and that these two have more in common than either does with the surly Bolingbrook, later Henry IV, is another of the rich and puzzling Shakespearean contrasts. 

By now it should be clear I find it wonderful merely to have the opportunity to watch these dramas, and make these contrasts, and reflect deeply on the costs and types of success, as opposed to just surviving. Whether they are well done or not seems an ungrateful afterthought. 

Applying grubby nitpicking to these generous TV films, directorial invention broadly decreases as the series progresses. But the production teams are saddled with a deadening overall concept – that these films must have roughly historically accurate settings. Squeezing the anachronistic, theatrical Bard into a historical straitjacket is a painful business; that his powerful effect survives is a miracle, but it does. At least the action is relatively straightforward. 

Some of the key casting is suspect. Jeremy Irons brings so much gravitas to Henry IV that Tom Hiddleston’s Henry V doesn’t really burst through as the great hero – he reminded me, unkindly, of Ben Whishaw’s sensitive loser Richard. Nor does Hiddleston rise to the occasion during his great patriotic speeches, a deadly weakness.  

As the great heart of the dramas, Simon Russell Beale may be our greatest actor, as is usually claimed, but I was not convinced he can be a Falstaff. Then again, I am not sure who could bring out every aspect of this supremely vital figure. He still dominated the dramas, as he should. 

Carping. After such an exhausting, exhilarating journey, the defects don’t matter.