Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony etc

Royal Albert Hall
11 August 2013

Vaughan Williams' Toward the Unknown Region. 
Also part of this concert, but not reviewed here, for lack of space.

Undermining dramatic sense in order to display virtuosity.

Worthy as the first half hour of the programme was, I imagine most of the audience at this (free) concert came for the post-interval performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.

Hopefully this wasn’t anyone’s first experience of the work, though perhaps it was for the musicians, all teenagers. In which case I hope they get better opportunities later in their careers.

The popularity of this symphony, it’s totemic quality, at least in the finale, makes it hard to criticise. So it’s good to see in the programme guide a negative quote from Spohr in the 1860s, complaining that the finale’s setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy is cheap and tasteless.

As the booklet doesn’t challenge this, I presume we are to believe that poor old Spohr is himself a victim of changing taste, and we now better appreciate Beethoven’s late genius, or something.

But I’d suggest it is clear that the finale is intentionally tasteless, or at least parts of it are, and that lusty full-throated choral singing is a straightforward way to embody joy. Why should such crude joy be the climax to a symphony?

Especially as the first three movements produce an atmosphere of almost unbearable seriousness, not remotely dispelled by the bouncing scherzo. That the tempestuous introduction to the fourth movement is not overcome by snatches of each of these movements but rather by the banal joy march, is one of those uncanny (tasteless, profound) moments that can characterise great artworks.

The basic theme is fully developed, so that the abrupt ending can seem the only appropriate outcome after such extremes of ecstasy. On reflection, I don’t know if the ode to Joy genuinely provides a secular (or pantheistic, perhaps) answer to life’s hardships as depicted earlier, but while in the concert hall there is no doubt.

Any adequate performance, including this one, will leave the audience feeling elated. But it is harder to give the full weight to the first three movements, and conductor Vasily Petrenko seemed to believe that the sooner they were over, the better to raise applause and roof in the finale.

The first three movements were so hard-driven that the effect was almost mechanical rather than musical. Charmless, inarticulate and in the case of the second movement, taken so quickly as almost to be a virtuosic blur.

The balances were a little odd too, with the woodwind and percussion sounding prominent, along with the lower strings, while the brass seemed too distant and the overall string sound distinctly cool. This needn’t be a problem, though I felt spoiled by the opulent sound of the East-West Divan orchestra last year.

These flaws came close to ruining the sublime slow movement, which must have necessitated the composer’s audacious approach to the ‘finale problem’. At least, in good performances it becomes clear that something special was needed to respond to it. Here, I felt a normal-sized orchestral fast movement might have sufficed.

Performers were generally good; they are not to blame for following misguided instructions.

The earlier makeweights were given good performances, so far as I could tell. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new homage to Beethoven, Frieze, was enjoyable without being memorable; perhaps he should have thrown in a catchy, banal tune.

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