Beethovenian Drama and Energy Sets Seal on SCO’s Season

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven: Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, John Storgårds (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 10.5.2012 (SRT)

Beethoven: Music from The Ruins of Athens
Symphony No. 9

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
Julia Riley (mezzo)
Paul Nilon (tenor)
Jan Martiník (bass)

Picture the scene: Greece is in ruins and German culture reigns supreme. Not a comment on the current Eurozone crisis, but the scenario for The Ruins of Athens, the play for which Beethoven wrote the incidental music in 1811. The play was designed to open the new imperial theatre in Budapest, then a regional city of the Austrian Empire, and concerns the return of Minerva to Athens, appalled to find the Parthenon in ruins and the city under Turkish occupation. This gave Beethoven an opportunity to indulge in some “Turkish” music, then all the range in Vienna, and the Turkish March is the most famous part of the score, but tonight’s performance proved there was a lot more to it. The choral numbers are particularly compelling and were sung with a pleasing sense of drama by the SCO Chorus. The Chorus of Dervishes shows the composer whipping the drama into a frenzy, including a very theatrical sense of entry and exit, while other aspects had all the solemnity of the priests from Zauberflöte. John Storgårds took the tempi at a fair lick but he never forgot that Beethoven wrote this music for a drama, and the strong sense of growth he brought to the final March set the seal on a very convincing suite that reminds us that Beethoven’s theatrical genius isn’t just limited to Fidelio.

You can’t get much more dramatic than the Ninth Symphony, and it’s a fantastic way to set the seal on the SCO’s 2011-12 season. Storgårds seemed to see the whole work unfolding in one huge arc. The first movement felt a little underwhelming to me; the great D major climax at the start of the recapitulation, in particular, felt flat and a little withdrawn. The energy picked up for the Scherzo, however, timpani bristling with vigour and an almost manic swing in the rhythm. The opening of the Adagio held me spellbound, the music gently unfolding from within itself, as if ambling gently through an Elysian landscape, until those great fanfares which seem to announce the coming of something altogether grander. The finale had a compelling sense of trajectory right from the first introduction of the Joy theme in the lower strings, progressing through a raucous Turkish section and a bitingly accurate fugue, through to the apotheosis of the final pages and a pleasingly broad opening out of the tempo just before the final dash. The choral singing was bright and energetic, if not especially subtle at first, but the sense of majesty at Seid umschlungen was very good. The soloists were a strong team too, let with wonderful gravitas by the bass of Jan Martiník and Paul Nilon proving a lyrical yet dramatic presence. With the whole SCO family on stage, this set the seal on a highly successful season.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra embarks upon its Scottish tour at the end of May and summer appearances include the East Neuk Festival and Edinburgh International Festival. The 2012-13 season begins with a concert performance of Così fan Tutte on 4th October. For full details go to

Simon Thompson