Galvanizing Choral Conclusion to Oxford’s Beethoven Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven: Julia Kogan (soprano), Diana Moore (mezzo soprano), James Edwards (tenor), Darren Jeffery (baritone), Beethoven Festival Chorus, Oxford Philomusica / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Beethoven Festival, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 30.11.2013 (CR)

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36
Symphony No. 9 in D minor ‘Choral’, Op. 125

Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony is the obvious climax to any complete cycle of the composer’s symphonies, not simply because it is the last and longest. Despite being completed a little over two decades earlier, the Symphony No. 2 (1802) is by no means a bad pairing: it shares the same tonal centre on D, and its dynamic power and expansive structure almost bursts the parameters of symphonic form as Beethoven took it up in each instance. A dramatic dotted D minor arpeggio in the slow introduction of the Second Symphony even seems to anticipate the mighty first subject of the Ninth’s opening movement.

That said, I wondered whether the juxtaposition of these two Symphonies in this programme created a temptation – which proved too difficult to resist – to imbue the Second with a portentousness and gravitas that it does not quite demand. Marios Papadopoulos’s reading combined both weight and energy, without, on the whole, becoming dragged down – no mean achievement in itself. However, the sheer onward surge created some problems of its own. In the first movement, the slow introduction failed to flow as freely as it might, the first subject could have been more nimble (although it sounded more so in the recapitulation than in the exposition), and the climactic effect of the wrenching, ascending chords in the coda was somewhat lost. Although the second movement’s first subject was airy, its actual articulation was a little stolid and unshaped, while the forceful attack on the loud chords punctuating the Scherzo made that movement seem almost uncomfortably prickly.

Given Papadopoulos’s choice of a determined and unyielding interpretation, there was no doubt that his command of the work was absolutely assured (probably because it was conducted without a score), and the orchestra’s readiness to respond to his vision was manifest. In any case, clear contrasts elsewhere ensured that this did not become a completely monolithic account, unsusceptible to humanity or nuance. The shift to the minor in the slow movement’s development was met with a darker, twilit tone, the overall manner of the Scherzo was sprightly despite the reservation expressed about this movement above, and the playful second subject of the finale could have emanated from a Viennese ballroom.

Papadopoulos’s broad and hefty approach was better suited to the colossal musical arguments wrought in the movements of the Symphony No. 9 (1823-4), the hazy open fifths at the beginning presaging an epic, even cataclysmic drama, particularly in the first movement. Papadopoulos used rubato sparingly, but meaningfully, to allow the music to unfold properly in its inevitable course, impelled by the dialogue which emerged between the two violin sections positioned antiphonally on either side of the conductor. Such discourse was solidly anchored by the cellos’ and double basses’ contribution from the middle of the higher strings. The violent catastrophe at the heart of the first movement’s development represented, perhaps, the logical climax of its stormy opening, heightened in effect by the raging timpani. It was a shame that the timpani’s solo interjections in the Scherzo were more tentative, but otherwise this movement’s trajectory was equally uncompromising, due in part to the omission of any repeats and a slightly breathless account of the more relaxed Trio section.

There was less of a sense of direction in the slow movement, partly as a result of the perfunctory upbeat in the woodwinds, and despite the still and stately demeanour of the strings in the first theme. The problem was in observing very little tonal or dynamic contrast between the two main sections which alternate in variation with each other throughout the movement. The searching modulations which Beethoven effects between the divergent keys of these sections ought to have been the cue for this, but were largely ignored. Certainly the performance of this movement offered a welcome moment of repose in a highly dramatic account of the Symphony as a whole, and in no way did it exude sentimentality. But even in this movement some semblance of tension and differentiation would have been ideal. The fanfares towards the end of the movement were strangely static too.

A renewed impetus enhanced the dissonant outbreak of the finale, leading to a fairly swift development of the Joy theme that could not help but take on a life of its own, despite the diffident and calmly objective manner of its performance here. Darren Jeffery’s silencing of the repeated maelstrom was stirring (except for the slightly out of tune cadence in his initial recitative), paving the way for another swift, but joyous, engagement with the central theme as the soloists and chorus embarked on the first six of the verses from Schiller’s An die Freude which Beethoven chose to set. In ‘Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen’ James Edwards’s singing was lyrical and caught the high B flats without strain, but it was far from his fault that, being placed behind the orchestra, his voice did not quite carry over the clangour of the music at this point. In the subsequent sections for the vocal soloists, where the orchestra is far quieter, it was his and Jeffery’s singing which was more evident, though ensemble among the four was otherwise good. So also was that among the choir – set further away behind the orchestra, and separated in two sections between female and male – except for a tendency on the part of the latter to declaim rather than chant the ‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen’ section, and their occasional lapses in timing.

Happily, an agile accumulation of energy and volume by all the orchestral and choral forces for the final peroration brought this performance, and the whole cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies and piano concertos, to a galvanising and emphatic conclusion.

Curtis Rogers


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