Benjamin Zander’s Refreshing and Thought-Provoking Approach to Beethoven

20/03/2017

Beethoven: Mei Yi Foo (piano), Rebecca Evans (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo), Robert Murray (tenor), Derek Welton (baritone), Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra / Benjamin Zander. Royal Festival Hall, London, 18.3.2017. (CC)

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Benjamin Zander (c) Koren Reyes

Beethoven, Overture, Coriolan, Op.62; Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op.37; Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op.125

As pre-concert talks go, Benjamin Zander’s ranks amongst the finest. An engaging raconteur and passionate advocate of Beethoven’s own metronome markings, over the course of an hour he dissected the Ninth movement by movement, even providing handouts for those of us quick enough to get to the platform to pick one up after he finished speaking: a copy of his article, “Did Beethoven get it wrong? Further thoughts on Beethoven’s tempo indications for the Ninth”, a list of Beethoven’s own metronome markings and a photocopy of an excerpt from one of the composer’s “Conversation Books” from September 27, 1826 between the composer and his nephew Karl around these same metronome markings. This, plus copious music examples from an electric piano by Zander himself and various gems of wisdom: Mahler “was born in the coda of the first movement”; a description of the Scherzo as “a trance-like dance”; the opening of the finale as a “Scherekenfanfare”. Admissions of tweaks to Beethoven’s scoring, even adding some timpani strokes, were also included. The audience was, for a pre-concert talk, huge. Zander clearly has a following, and deservedly so.

Although the orchestra was the Philharmonia, this was not part of their main subscription series. Whether or not that had anything to do with the number of deputies (it did look like a different orchestra), who knows; certainly ticketing and related arrangements were very different. The audience, too, was different, applauding between movements – only Mei Yi Foo’s correct decision to move straight into the concerto’s finale headed off the worst of it in that instance.

Zander made the interesting point that both Coriolan and the Ninth begin “atemporally” – that is, initially one cannot tell the tempo. In the case of the orchestra this comes in the form of a sustained unison “C”, in the symphony the famous sustained tremolando fifth.  A nice link (and of course Coriolan links to the Third Piano Concerto via key centre). The performance of Coriolan itself was remarkably disciplined, with very tight string articulation. Unsurprisingly there was no slowing for the second theme; a diminuendo over a sequence of chords was beautifully managed. A thought-provoking as well as exciting account.

The soloist for Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto was Mei Yi Foo, a winner of the BBC Best Newcomer of the Year Award. It was interesting that Zander chose to conduct the whole first movement in four despite the sprightly tempo (including the second subject). There was a lovely sense of detail, such as the nice viola counterpoint in the orchestral exposition. Mei Yi Foo’s contribution was characterised by a penchant for clarity, but her tone tended to become brittle at the louder end of the dynamic scale. The central Largo was expansive, most notable perhaps for the orchestra’s beautifully shaped initial response to the soloist’s opening statement. Clarity was paramount here, with the wind solos coming through well. The dexterity required for the finale was all in place from the soloist, and it is a testament to the intelligence underlying this reading that the coda was fast but not frantic. Light on pedal throughout, Foo clearly saw this concerto as gravitating towards Beethoven’s first couple of offerings. A most stimulating performance.

And so to the great Ninth. Now batonless, Zander commanded a phenomenally involving performance of this great masterwork. Although Zander eschewed any slowings, this added to the tension rather than forcing the music towards breathlessness. There was a huge amount of detail that shone through, also. Antiphonal violins really worked in the rapid-fire exchanges; hard-stick timpani shot through textures like thunderbolts. And, indeed, that coda did have a sense of the monumental, referring back to Zander’s comments about Mahler. The sprightly Scherzo was beautifully shaped by Zander; the “surprise” tempo for the Trio was so rapid that one felt lucky to have the Philharmonia here; the challenge to the bassoon, particularly, must be huge.

The slow movement was so fast it was almost two in a bar; as Zander acknowledged, he is at the antithesis of the Bernstein approach to this music. It was interesting how the opening and the Andante were so close in basic pulse but the difference came in mood. Rightly, it was the fourth horn who played the solo (it is often purloined by the first), here possessed of a properly fruity low B flat. As to the finale, this was of remarkable energy. The low string recitatives were relentless in execution. Zander clearly likes the dramatic gesture as the baritone soloist, Derek Welton, entered at the last moment, holding his hand up in a “no further” motion to the performers as if to mirror his opening words of “O Freunde! Nicht diese Töne”. The remaining soloists entered just prior to their entrance, minus the top gesture. Taking a break from Partenope over at St Martin’s Lane where she is taking the role of Arsace, Patricia Bardon was a superb mezzo; Rebecca Evans a good soprano despite overenthusiastically holding out at the very end of the movement and retreating to the near-inaudible. The tenor, Robert Murray, was asked to sing “Froh” as a whispered confidence, and despite Zander’s comments on how difficult it is to get a tenor to sing quietly in the pre-concert talk, it was executed expertly. The result certainly caused my eyebrows to raise, but that is all part of hearing the work anew.

The Chorus was staggeringly good throughout; nice to hear the diminuendo, pencilled-in on the score in the British Library, on the choral “Vor Gott” so perfectly managed. The orchestra, too, stunned in the fugue, taken at a massively fast pace. The performance as a whole was refreshing; Zander clearly has much to say in this repertoire.

Colin Clarke

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