Persuasive Performances of Beethoven’s First and Last Reveal a Pioneering Symphonist 

03/04/2017

Beethoven: Elin Pritchard (soprano), Samantha Price (mezzo-soprano), Alexander James Edwards (tenor), Thomas Faulkner (bass), Cardiff Ardwyn Singers, Cardiff Polyphonic Choir, Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra / Michael Sanderling (conductor) St David’s Hall Cardiff, 1.4.2017. (PCG)

Beethoven – Symphony No.1 Op.21; Symphony No.9 ‘Choral’ Op.125

It was an excellent idea in this programme to couple performances of Beethoven’s first and last symphonies, both in their different ways pioneering works in the evolution of the form. The originality of the Ninth, early recognised by his contemporaries and elevated by Wagner to the nature of a declaration of romantic faith, remains clear to modern listeners. However, the novel touches in the First can tend to sound ‘tame’ to ears accustomed to later developments in the classical and romantic periods, and a conscious effort is required to recognise how revolutionary many of Beethoven’s procedures were in their day. The first movement, opening as it does with a sequence of discords, must have shocked its first audiences. The use of the timpani in the Andante cantabile to provide a throbbing accompaniment was daring in an era when heavy brass and percussion were frequently excluded altogether from slow movements. The third movement, although described as a ‘Menuetto’ and featuring the usual scheme of repeats, is well on the way to evolving into the scherzo which was to take its place in all of Beethoven’s later symphonies. And the hesitant introduction to the finale, tentatively hinting at false starts in rhythm and key, so shocked some of Beethoven’s first audiences that the bars in question were actually cut out of some early performances.

The originality of the Ninth subsists above all, of course, in the fact that solo voices and chorus enter into the setting of Schiller for the finale. But again there are major features of originality in the earlier movements. The opening of the first movement with its enigmatic direction Allegro, ma non troppo, un poco maestoso, carefully avoids the use of the third of the scale for some twenty bars, leaving the mystified listener in the dark as to what key the music is actually in; and the return of the same material fortissimo at the start of the recapitulation still retains its capacity to shock if it is delivered with sufficient conviction. The interjections of solo timpani in the scherzo are startling in their own right, but even more unusual is Beethoven’s tuning of the drums in octaves rather than fifths as was still the convention in the era. The third movement features a prominent role for the fourth horn which ranges over the whole range of the instrument and is unprecedentedly chromatic for its period. And the finale begins with a dramatic series of violently discordant passages which then feature reminiscences of the earlier movements, a precedent followed by many composers in the following century but entirely novel in symphonic music at this time. This music is still sufficiently charged with dramatic punch that Tippett could incorporate it (without sounding out of place) into his own Third Symphony 150 years later.

In any performance of these two symphonies, it is therefore essential that the conductor and players should be aware of the innovative nature of the scores and should aim to realise them with all the precision and force at their disposal. The Dresden players under Sanderling certainly achieved this at all points. One might query the decision to omit the repeat of the second half of the scherzo (we lose thirteen bars of music, featuring some startling modulations, which Beethoven specifically composed to facilitate this process), or the fairly rapidly flowing speed which Sanderling employed for the Adagio molto sections of the third movement (some of the violin figurations can be more pointedly inflected at a slightly slower pace) but in general terms the Ninth was given an excellent performance, decidedly superior to many rivals on disc. The singing of the combined Welsh choirs had plenty of body and power, and the soloists came across clearly despite being positioned behind the orchestra – Alexander James Edwards must be singled out for his clear declamation of his horrifically difficult vocal line in the Alla marcia, even in the six final bars which Beethoven tentatively suggests in the score could be omitted. Thomas Faulkner resisted the temptation to blast his opening recitative, and both Elin Pritchard and Samantha Price delivered performances of delicacy as well as passion. Beethoven marks the penultimate section of the score Allegro ma non tanto, and Sanderling’s headlong speed left me wondering what more he could find to deliver for the succeeding Prestissimo; but singers and orchestra rose superbly to the challenge in a manner which brought the sizeable audience cheering to their feet. Marvellous too was the sudden cramming on of the brakes for the four bars of Maestoso in the final choral bars, a passage which Beethoven marks to be delivered between four and five times slower than the surrounding material but which many modern interpretations treat as a mere cadential inflection in the welter of the orchestral and choral tumult. Plus marks, too, for the decision to separate first and second violins antiphonally across the stage, with immeasurable gains for clarity in both symphonies.

I could and should complain about the failure of the programme to deliver the text and translation of Schiller’s ode, which is really essential if the audience is fully to enter into the spirit of the music with Beethoven’s careful dramatic treatment of the words; I made a similar observation regarding the last performance of the ‘Choral’ Symphony at the venue a couple of years back. But otherwise there was nothing seriously to quarrel with in the presentation of this concert, another in the St David’s Hall series of ‘international concerts’ to savour in the current season.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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