PROM 75: Welcome Return to Penultimate Proms Night of  Beethoven’s Ninth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Prom 75 –  Cerha, Beethoven: Christina Landshamer (soprano), Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano), Steve Davislim (tenor), Dmitry Belosselskiy (bass), Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir and Children’s Choir, Leipzig Opera Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra / Alan Gilbert (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 12.9.2014 (MMB)

 Friedrich Cerha: Paraphrase on the Opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, “Choral”

On the BBC website, in the Proms Archive, in the Proms 2014 Programme and on last evening’s Prom 75 programme, it was advertised that Beethoven’s 9th was returning to its traditional position on the penultimate night of the season. This is something that I have heard many times before but was never able to find out why it became a tradition.  Not that it really matters. It is a good tradition whatever the reasons and, as such, I hope it will be continued. It brings the Proms Season to a distinguished close before the flamboyant “epilogue”, which is The Last Night and that to me is reason enough.

 The Albert Hall was packed and if not sold out, there were probably only one or two seats empty in the whole house. I must say that it never ceases to amaze me how Beethoven’s music, like Mozart’s, still performs to sell-out concert halls worldwide and has the power to attract and enchant people of all ages, backgrounds and generations. This is most particular of the 9th Symphony. To me, it is still the greatest symphony ever written and I often wish that I could travel back in time and be among that audience that heard it for the very first time. What an amazing, unforgettable moment it must have been! The appeal of the 9th lies possibly in its, at the time, innovative and unique use of a choir in the final movement but mostly, I believe, to the feelings of humanity and brotherhood among all mankind and the joy that such harmonious unity would bring: Alle Menschen werden Brüder (all men become brothers), as stated in Schiller’s extremely musical and wonderful poem, which possesses perfect metrics, great imagery and beauty of language.

 Prom 75 began with a brief piece (only 14 minutes) by Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha. It was commissioned by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra to be played as a “foreword” of sorts to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. As Cerha states himself in the programme notes, when first approached to write a small piece to be performed before the 9th and preferably connected to it, he answered ‘no’ because he did not want to write about someone else’s music. However, he says, the opening movement of the symphony haunted him for days after the request and slowly, a composition emerged in his imagination. This is the piece that opened the evening. It was written in 2010 and named simply “Paraphrase on the Opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9”. I am not a great fan of modern music but Cerha’s piece is atmospheric and rather pleasant to listen to. The connection to Beethoven is not obvious and one could be forgiven for not noticing it if it wasn’t written on the programme notes. The most beautiful bit to my mind was the part with the bells that left a fresh, sparkling sound hanging in the air.

 After Cerha’s piece, we arrived, without interval, at the moment for the “real” concert of the night: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, always an event, particularly when executed by a magnificent orchestra such as the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Sadly, Riccardo Chailly, the originally advertised conductor, was forced to withdraw due to illness. He was replaced by the talented, distinguished American conductor Alan Gilbert, the music director of the New York Philharmonic since September 2009 and apparently the first native New Yorker to be appointed to the post. I like Alan Gilbert. I think he is an outstanding, energetic conductor who likes eclectic programmes and promoting underrated composers. It was to be expected that his interpretation of the 9th would considerably differ from that of Chailly’s. It was neither worse nor better than Chailly’s. Both have great quality but they are inherently different, as are possibly the two conductors’ personalities. Chailly’s interpretation is more colourful, more powerful, more emotional. He unleashes the power of the orchestra with gusto and in a large auditorium such as the Albert Hall it brings across to great effect the grandeur, beauty and impact of Beethoven’s glorious music. Gilbert’s interpretation was subtle and to my mind rather understated. I did not particularly like his extreme pianissimi in the slow movement, although elegantly performed, and especially the beginning of the final movement, which was so quietly executed that I had difficulty hearing it.

 The Leipzig Gewandhaus is an outstanding orchestra and perhaps, like all great German orchestras, there is a special relationship and understanding of Beethoven’s score, as an integral part of their musical heritage. They responded to Gilbert’s lead exceptionally well but, to my mind, there was less of a rapport than with Chailly. There were one or two slightly awkward moments, particularly during the quiet passages in the first movement and the beginning of the fourth, which gave me the impression of brief hesitation or minor disapproval of the conductor’s interpretation but perhaps, it was just me! Nevertheless, the performance as a whole was magnificent and when Gilbert finally allows the orchestra to unleash in the final movement, alongside no less than four choirs, all the sublime power of the music engulfs the audience like a giant wave, creating goose bumps on one’s skin and bringing the odd tear of joy to one’s eyes. All four choirs were excellent and I particularly enjoyed the unusual addition of very young voices with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Children’s Choir. The clear, fresh, innocent tone of the children’s voices enhanced the meaning of Beethoven’s music and of Schiller’s poem, expressing the joy of the last movement much more effectively than I have ever heard before.

 The soloists did a solid job and delivered their parts effectively. Tenor Steve Davislim phrased rather well and his German pronunciation was clear but his voice was at times overwhelmed by the orchestra while soprano Christina Landshammer gave me the impression that she was not projecting as far as she could. Nevertheless, her voice was always the one that could be distinctively heard above the orchestra, with a clear tone and beautifully rich high notes.

 The “stars” of the evening were not the soloists, as it is sometimes the case, but the superlative Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the extraordinary performance of the four choirs who all sang from memory Schiller’s beautiful German text. Personally, I prefer Chailly’s interpretation to that of Gilbert’s but the latter did an outstanding job and managed a worthy, memorable performance of the return of Beethoven’s 9th to the Penultimate Night of the Proms.

Margarida Mota-Bull

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