United Kingdom Beethoven: Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Andrew Manze (conductor). City Hall, Glasgow, 13.12.2019. (GT)
Beethoven – Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.36; Symphony No.4 in B flat major, Op.60; Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
This evening was the second part of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s celebration of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary which falls in 2020. If the first concert was momentous with the orchestra showing their top form, this series of three symphonies proved exceptional for the magnificence in both interpretation and performance.
Prior to starting the concert, Manze opened by saying how happy he was to be back in the City Hall, noting that if not for Beethoven halls like this would not be built; indeed that we would not have orchestras like the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and that symphonic music would not be the same without Beethoven.
Manze opened the Adagio molto with a dramatic flourish producing a gloriously homogeneous sound, the orchestra was more centred around the conductor, retaining the layout for the strings as before. Manze adopted a brisk, no-nonsense tempo focused on moving the music swiftly along, with sharply enunciated phrasing. The conductor’s manner at the podium is almost balletic, constantly moving arms and legs, head jerking back and forth. The degree of drama and excitement was palpable, and the marvellous Larghetto was beautifully performed.
In the Scherzo, Manze brought out all the witty writing by Beethoven, and there was some stunningly precise playing by the orchestra, with wonderful rhythms, and colours. This was Beethoven with a smile, and sometimes a sardonic grimace. In the Allegro molto finale, the mood was happy and upbeat, again with some magical playing. This performance of the Second Symphony was almost revelatory in its wit, charm and enlightened manner with Beethoven urging his radical take on symphonic structure further than ever before.
For the Adagio of the Fourth Symphony, the opening mysterious passage sounded like it slowly emerged from the morning mist, so that when the Allegro vivace arrived it was like a sudden burst of bright sunlight. The conductor takes the music to its very limits, generating intensive drama and thunderous excitement. The natural timpani were especially effective in the transition back to the opening key. In the second movement (Adagio) there was some wonderful solo playing from woodwind group, notably from the clarinet of Bob Hill, and the flute of Fiona Fulton. In the Menuetto, the performance developed into some great Beethoven playing. The trio was so familiar, but here it was if we were hearing it afresh and sparkling new. In the finale, the intensity of the playing was gripping, this was real edge of your seat stuff. Manze all the time was like a dynamo on stage inciting his players like a conjurer with his bag of tricks, his style is non-stop, and this was probably the finest playing I have heard of this symphony.
The famous opening three-note figure bars of the Allegro con brio of the Fifth was glorious in its swaggering grandeur, again this was immensely impressive playing, it was really like hearing this music for the first time, so fresh and new, and sounding so modern. One had the feeling as if we were sharing the experience of the Viennese audiences in 1808. In the Andante con moto, the riveting music caught one’s attention; the players were producing some of the finest playing I have heard for many a year. One must mention again the beautiful solo from the flute of Fulton, and how Manze drew out from his players such remarkable playing; in the transition into the Allegro finale, the sense of expectation was stunning. It seems that he has dissected Beethoven’s writing and joined it up together again with marvellously clean, modern sound. The orchestra was enlarged from that for the Second and Fourth Symphonies, and the trombones in particular were tangible in their contribution to the surging, upbeat finale. In all, this survey of three Beethoven symphonies was a marvellous exploration of well-known music. I, for one, cannot recall a more enjoyable concert devoted wholly to these symphonies.