Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Beethoven's Choral Symphony

Is Beethoven’s Choral Symphony the greatest piece of music ever written? It’s there or thereabouts as far as I’m concerned, and it’s been that way now for many decades. A towering piece of invention with an overarching structure, a staggering opening, a beautiful slow section and a final movement which changed music for ever. Immense power combined with great warmth and humanity, it always leaves me speechless.

I’ve heard it a few times during my lifetime, not too often I have to say. This is NOT background music to be played on an iPod as you jog around the local park. It demands and deserves your full and undivided attention. The best performance I ever heard was at the end of the Beethoven Cycle which Simon Rattle gave as his last concerts with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, in around 1995. It made such an impact on me, I can still hear it today.

The LSO taking the applause.
(There's definitely something going on
between the Piccolo and the Horn Player!)

In my life, a fair amount of water has flowed under a reasonable number of bridges since that performance, and tonight was the first performance of the 9th I’ve been to since that night. A few days ago, I trooped off to Symphony Hall to hear it performed once more, this time performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

Sir John is at the vanguard of the revival of early music, and its playing on instruments of the time. His performances are often described as “blowing the cobwebs” off the music, with consistently faster tempi than those perhaps we (certainly I)have become accustomed to experience over my lifetime.

The curse of music – the record, CD or LP – comes into play here. Ever since I became addicted to music I have bought recordings to play when ever I wanted. The inevitable downside of this is that it is all too easy to imprint a “standard” recording - one which becomes the definitive performance - into one’s brain. So, when someone comes along with a different way of performing it, you have to approach it with an open mind, something which is often not easy since you may have heard your “standard” performance hundreds of times. Anyway, I flung the doors of my mind open as far as possible and hinged them back as I set off for Symphony Hall.

There’s almost a classic programme which is played when the Choral Symphony is performed. Beethoven’s 1st Symphony is often used as the first part of the programme. Written about 20 years apart, the two works document and demonstrate the vast distance Beethoven moved the whole of music over his life time. His First Symphony is a homage to Haydn and Mozart, and his last, two decades on, sits literally in another world. This comparison shows the power, the vision and the importance of the man, and why to me he is simply the Greatest Artist the world has ever known.

The 1st Symphony suited Sir John’s style perfectly. It was lively but with a great degree of power and muscle, and it showed up the LSO’s virtuosity quite superbly. His conducting places significant demands on the orchestral players, but they handled it with great panache. I can’t recall hearing it played any better than this.

Now the Choral Symphony is a beast of very different shape and dimensions, literally music from another age. The LSO’s forces were not massive, as Sir John’s approach was for precision, accuracy and fleet of footedness rather than the huge orchestras I have been used to. He positioned the violins all across the front of the soundstage, and sited the deeper Strings on the left rather than the right. The Monteverdi choir numbered “only” about 40 strong, which was about 25% of the size of the forces under Rattle’s baton 15 years ago. For reasons I for one couldn’t understand, the four soloists sat on chairs on the far left of the orchestra, almost as if they were on the Naughty Step for musical misdemeanours unknown to the audience. Surely, they were not going to perform their roles, which are central to the last movement, from the wings? Intriguing.

There were a lot of extremely good things about the performance, but, sadly, I was not won over. Maybe it’s my inbuilt “Ludditeness”, I don’t know, but it all seemed a bit of a rush. The LSO’s playing was terrific, giving the aura of a powerful car under the conductor’s baton, which responded instantly to his every demand. A special mention is in order here for two of the players. Firstly the percussionist who I thought had a fantastic touch and a great technique. Secondly the Piccolo player, a lady who sat on the stage unmoved for almost all of the performance like an admiring groupie for the woodwind player next door. When her time came, she stood up and her little set of pipes soared way above the rest of the orchestra – she played it extremely well.

I enjoyed the precision and beauty of the playing, but to me, this is music which needs space to breathe. The slow movement wasn’t that slow. It is a piece of serenity to me in the midst of some of the most tempestuous music you can find, and here it seemed to lack that air of stillness I want from it. I’m sure Sir John, who is 3 years older than I am, would look over his glasses, muttering something about “fuddy-duddy”, but it didn’t work for me.

The last movement took on the air of a man who had glanced at his watch and had realised that if they got a bit of a Wiggle on, they could just about make it onto the earlier train home. It rocketed off at a hell of a rate, and when the soloists each walked onto the centre of the stage, mid performance (very distracting I have to say), I felt they were hanging onto the conductor by his coat-tails. They then, as their individual contribution was over, trooped off to their seats in the wings. All too “Brian Rix” farce for me, and quite unnecessary and theatrical. It took something away rather than adding to the performance.

The whole performance was all very virtuosic, but in its tumultuous surge, to me it lost the essential importance, size and impact of the composer’s message. This is after all one of the greatest and most powerful moments in all music, and the speed it was played, whilst giving a real sense of forward motion, seemed to me to leave the essence of the music behind in the rush. Perhaps it was just me, but Sad.

So there you go. The whole place rose as one to applaud the evening, as I did. You couldn’t fault the energy, the precision or the passion of the playing. I just wanted a bit more grandeur and space.


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