Beethoven Life and Music

ItalyItaly Spontini, Beethoven:  Orchestra dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano.  Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome.  10.10.2015 (JB)

Using a creative artist’s life as an indication of their work can be misleading. But also sometimes illuminating.  Beethoven was thirty-one when he began work on the Second symphony; his deafness was settling in and he is on record expressing doubt as to whether it could ever be cured. Biographers have both affirmed and disputed as to whether these circumstances found their way into his music. But either way, does it matter?  What my own ears tell me with the Second is that I am listening to a symphony of excruciating dullness that bears no relation to the genius the composer later gave to the world.

I held those views as an arrogant seventeen-year old when Dr Annie Warburton (Chief Music Examiner) prescribed this symphony for compulsory detailed study for A level Music. Dr Annie must have joined the Great Majority by now and as you can see, my arrogance has not diminished –at least as far as the Second is concerned.  I would like to be able to tell you how wrong I was as a teenager, but last night’s performance only affirmed the vacuousness of the original encounter.

And before you put this down to the hatred of all things we were made to study in school, let me throw that concept out of the window too: around this time, Mr Crick (the music master) introduced me to the Ravel Quartet, a work with which I have ever since been living, with increasing understanding and pleasure.

As always, the Orchestra and Antonio Pappano delivered this junk perfectly. Had there been anything to be redeemed, it would have been redeemed: the wind players were beautifully poised and pitched in the Larghetto and singled out for applause by the maestro. The vaguely pastoral air had a soporific effect on the audience, who only wakened up to offer some polite applause at the end. This movement doesn’t sound as though it is by the same composer as the Sixth, who in the later symphony would find some memorable expression from the genre.

Vacuousness was also up for the grabs with Spontini’s overture to his opera, Olympie, the concert’s opening.  Maestro Pappano is presenting the Beethoven symphonies with either one of Beethoven’s contemporaries or our own. Clearly, Gaspare Spontini (1774 – 1851) comes into the first category. He scored a great success with his opera in Paris, La Vestale, which is still worth a revival, but only if you have a soprano of the calibre of Callas to carry the work. Olympie had some success in Berlin at the end of Spontini’s career. It has rarely been performed since that premiere.  And if the opera is as uneventful as its overture that is a good enough reason for its neglect.

Cliché of a different order was up for our attention after the interval, with the Beethoven Fifth. All over-performed works are rendered meaningless by their repetition. But sometimes a performer will come along who will manage to breath life into music which has been hacked to death. Just think of Percy Grainger with the Grieg Concerto or Joshua Bell with the Mendelssohn. The grotesquely hackneyed music suddenly becomes alive with a Resurrection flooding our ears.

Antonio Pappano did just this with the Beethoven Fifth. There was an extraordinary veil of mystery over the opening bars, not the usual bash-your-brains-out blood and thunder of the cliché. From there, the maestro built up some arresting musical architecture, through  the simple lyricism of the second and the mountain-building of the third and fourth movements.  Resurrection!  I’ve been wrong about this symphony!  I felt much like the British Ambassador to Moscow, who at the end of the Russian premiere of Walton’s cello concerto, turned to Sir William and said, Hey, this is not bad: have you written anything else? 

Jack Buckley

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