Noseda’s Electrifying Beethoven Fifth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Berg and Beethoven: Angela Denoke (soprano), London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 21.6.2012. (JPr)

Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Berg: Three Fragments from Wozzeck
Beethoven: Symphony No.5

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one of his most popular works because it has accreted over the years the idea that, more than any other of his compositions, it encompasses his struggles, strength of will and genius. From 1800 Beethoven became increasingly deaf and not long after he wrote he would ‘seize Fate by the throat; it shall not bend or crush me completely.’ Subsequently he is supposed to have told his assistant, Anton Schindler, that the famous beginning of this Fifth Symphony is when fate ‘knocks at the door.’ Whether its emotional progress can be experienced as a journey from darkest despair to hope reborn, or as a burgeoning triumph over life’s adversities or as something else, is very much in the ears of the listener. There is clearly something portentous in the famous C minor opening and something undoubtedly uplifting about the final movement’s C major coda some 40 minutes later.

Beethoven wrote the Symphony in 1807 and early 1808, premièring it later that year in a marathon four-hour-long concert at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien alongside other first public performances that included the Sixth Symphony, Fourth Piano Concerto, two movements from the Mass in C, a concert aria ‘Ah, perfido’, a solo piano improvisation and the Choral Fantasy. The piano soloist was Beethoven himself. It was all under-rehearsed and it was not a great success for the composer though it was not long before the Fifth Symphony was recognised as the masterpiece it undoubtedly is. A contemporary of the composer, E.T.A. Hoffmann, especially wrote a lengthy – and very influential review – hailing ‘Beethoven’s romanticism … that tears the listener irresistibly away into the wonderful spiritual realm of the infinite.’ Lindsay Kemp in his printed programme note writes that few in the audience at the first performance of the Fifth ‘can have been prepared for the brusque, almost visceral assault this unique work was to make on their senses.’

I have only rarely heard Beethoven’s Fifth live in concert though the music is completely recognisable, but rarely could it have sounded more ‘brusque’ or ‘visceral’ or an ‘assault’ on the ears. I thought the performance given by the outstanding London Symphony Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda was electrifying. Packed with detail it was loud, fleet-footed … and wonderfully thrilling. Noseda allowed no let-up in the ‘da-da-da-dum’ rhythm that underpins the first movement. We were allowed just a few moments of repose in the second movement but Noseda’s thrusting baton brought an incredible urgency to all the other movements. Everything reached the suitably blazing and joyful C major heights in the finale reinforced by the LSO’s virtuoso trombones, piccolo and double bassoon. (It is often stated that this was the first symphony to include the trombone and piccolo but this is not in fact true.) After the last note died away Noseda was acclaimed by all the musicians before him – and the audience behind him. The LSO is used to fervent performances of classics from their principal conductor, Valery Gergiev, but I doubt even he could have made Beethoven’s very familiar Fifth Symphony sound more exciting.

Thankfully, this second half of the concert made up for the lacklustre Wagner and Berg before the interval. Having praised the LSO for their Beethoven, I am always surprise how uncertain they are when they have Wagner’s music to play, which is not very often. There was a complete lack of radiance, mystery, transcendence or transfiguration for the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. It did not help that the celebrated German soprano, Angela Denoke, who was not that impressive as Salome at Covent Garden recently, gave further evidence that she was wise to withdraw from singing Brünnhilde at Bayreuth in 2013. Her voice lacked volume and lyricism and it was cruelly exposed on the concert stage as sounding too mature with both her top and bottom notes lacking the necessary support. Strangely, she was allowed to ‘act’ the Liebestod as though she was on the recital platform. There followed more ‘Bleeding Chunks’ with Denoke talking and singing as Marie in Alban Berg’s ‘Three Fragments from Wozzeck’, an orchestral suite that was first performed in 1924 and helped bring about the opera’s eventual triumphant première late the following year. Denoke brought a tragic dignity and psychological truth to Marie but still sounded rather strained – hopefully she was just having a rare bad night. Noseda and the LSO were boisterous, raw and compassionately human by turns and they exposed the Mahlerian undercurrent in Berg’s music. This was a first live ‘Three Fragments’ for me and the printed programme suggested it should have ended with Scenes 4 and 5 from Act III. For some reason we were denied this finale involving Marie’s child and other children, and why ever that was it made for an unsatisfactory end to the music.

Jim Pritchard