Beethoven: the 1808 concert in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, the 1808 concert: Alwyn Mellor, Harriet Eyley (sopranos), Angharad Lyddon (mezzo-soprano), Alexander Sprague (tenor), Steffan Lloyd Owen (baritone), Steve Osborne, Llŷr Williams (pianos), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Jaime Martin (conductor), Welsh National Opera Orchestra / Carlo Rizzi (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 19.1.2020. (PCG)

Carlo Rizzi © Tessa Traeger

Beethoven – Symphony No.6 in F Op.68, ‘Pastoral’; ‘Ah! perfido’ Op.65; Mass in C Op.86: Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus; Piano Concerto No.4 in G Op.58; Symphony No.5 in C minor Op.67; Fantasia in G minor Op.77; Choral Fantasia in C minor Op.80

On 22 December 1808, Beethoven presented a concert in Vienna, which contained no fewer than three world premières of his music, as well as a number of works not previously heard in the Austrian capital. He featured as pianist, director and even improviser, but the result – as so often seems to be the case with first performances of masterpieces – was not far short of a disaster. The orchestra were desperately under-rehearsed, one of the principal soloists pulled out at the last minute and had to be replaced, there was already another charitable concert in Vienna that evening competing for audiences, the hall was freezingly cold, and the audience were astounded and dismayed at the length of the programme even in those days when monster concerts were not unfamiliar. It must have therefore seemed a quixotic idea in the extreme to reproduce the whole event in Cardiff on a freezing Sunday afternoon, but in the event it proved to be at once a triumph and a revelation, not least by allowing live audiences to hear works like the Choral Fantasia that are rarely encountered in the concert hall.

The Cardiff audience responded magnificently to the opportunity. In the past, I have commented on many occasions on the often dismally small attendances at concerts in St David’s Hall on a Sunday afternoon. Here the hall was full to the rafters, with hardly an empty seat to be seen, and the listeners remained transfixed from four in the afternoon until well after nine in the evening (with a ‘supper interval’ of 90 minutes). Another potential obstacle, the sheer practicability of getting an orchestra to play for over five hours without total exhaustion (quite apart from the cost considerations of overtime), was solved by the brilliant concept of splitting the performance between two orchestras and two conductors, together with two piano soloists in each half, with only the chorus and solo singers in common across the two halves of the evening. This dichotomy also served to illustrate quite different styles of Beethoven performance, indicative of the variety of approaches which this music can bring.

In the first half, Carlo Rizzi with the Welsh National Opera Orchestra of whom he was so long the principal conductor, epitomised what one might term the modern approach to Beethoven: the historically informed practice of attempting to conform to classical style whilst using modern orchestral instruments. His reading of the Pastoral Symphony ventured along at quite a clip – even in the scene by the brook the onward flow of the waters was irresistible – and the interruption of the peasants’ bucolic merrymaking by the thunderstorm came as the sort of shock it should be. There was never any suspicion of the sort of ponderousness one associates with Otto Klemperer’s interpretation of the music – even when the song of thanksgiving at the end can sometimes invite a sort of pantheistic luxuriance – and the score came up as fresh as a daisy.

Similarly, Rizzi and Steven Osborne’s take on the Fourth Piano Concerto – considering its first Vienna performance at the 1808 concert – had little truck with romantic wallowing. The ‘wild beasts’ in the second movement which are tamed by the piano (to adopt Liszt’s mythical description of the music) were briskly springing panthers rather than roaring lions. On the other hand, Steven Osborne cut loose his traces slightly during the cadenza of the first movement, moving indeed into positively Lisztian territory, and his challenging pace during the finale brought the audience cheering to its feet.

Between these two items, which in themselves would have provided enough meat for most concerts, we heard the Gloria from Beethoven’s Mass in C. The sopranos of the BBC National Chorus of Wales covered themselves in glory with their triumphant attack on Beethoven’s streams of high notes. One looks forward to their performance later this year in the even more stratospheric reaches of the Missa Solemnis. Alwyn Mellor similarly displayed visceral courage in her attack on the many exposed high entries in the concert aria ‘Ah! perfido’. It was ironic that a work which Beethoven had inserted into the programme mainly as a vehicle for a favourite soprano had in Vienna to be taken over by an understandably nervous understudy. There were no such fears here, even though the music with its formally structured emotional tirades (by the ubiquitous Metastasio) sounded positively old-fashioned by comparison with the rest of the music in this programme; there were elements of Gluck-like stateliness rather than the display and sparkle that we associate with Mozart’s concert arias. But this is a work which we are unlikely to hear outside the context of an anniversary celebration such as this, and as such it was doubly welcome.

After the interval the audience was plunged straight into the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and we seemed to enter a whole new world. Jaime Martin, making his début with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, made no bones about presenting us with big-band Beethoven. His speeds were no less headlong than those of Rizzi in the Sixth, but he brought heavier weight to almost every bar even before the trombones, piccolo and double-bassoon erupted into the finale. The second movement, a piece that can suffer from an over-stately approach, moved along with a march-like swing; the scherzo had a real dance-like impulse; and the first movement never once threatened to grind to a halt at the many pauses in the score. Almost from the beginning one noticed the attention to detail, such as the little wind crescendos underpinning the main theme, and two examples of care in preparation were apparent in the timpani part of the finale. The drum-beats which launch the transition between the scherzo and finale were clearly audible from the very start (they can so often become submerged beneath the strings), and even Beethoven’s peculiar notation of the final bar of the symphony in the timpani part was turned to advantage. (The composer writes out the closing semibreve as two minims, the first of which are marked as repeated notes and the second as a conventional roll; but at the speed of the music the difference between the two is effectively indiscernible. What Steve Barnard gave us here was a slightly slower series of repeated notes lunging onto a roll halfway through the bar. Most members of the audience will simply have registered this as a slight accent, but it was clearly a conscientious attempt to realise precisely what Beethoven wrote, and it worked.)

The segment of the Mass in C which followed, the Sanctus and Benedictus, served mainly to illustrate the emphasis that Beethoven placed on the text of the Benedictus – which in this Missa Solemnis would develop almost into a full-scale violin concerto movement. Here he differentiated soloists and chorus in a manner that went well beyond anything attempted by Haydn in his masses composed for the same commission (from Prince Esterházy), although the formal setting of the ‘Osanna’ at the end seems too conventional for its context. The four soloists acquitted themselves well, standing at the front of the platform and therefore distinguished from the chorus (in the Choral Fantasia they stood in the first row of the chorus, which also worked well since they are not there placed in competition with them).

At the 1808 concert, Beethoven followed all this with an improvisation at the piano, which obviously has not survived, but it is thought that the Op.77 fantasia which Llŷr Williams played here was based on that improvisation. It certainly sounded like it, not one of Beethoven’s best-formed structures with elements of display clearly designed to impress on initial hearing. The series of fast scales which launch and punctuate the piece seem to start and stop without any particular purpose, and the body of the work consists of a series of variations on a brief and (most of the time) very obvious theme. But the soloist held the work together as it moved from one section to another, and encompassed the display passages with an obvious sense of enjoyment. Again, this is not a piece which one would expect to encounter outside the confines of a concert such as this, and again it is all the more welcome for that.

The marathon event came to an end with the Choral Fantasia, which was clearly conceived specifically for the 1808 concert since it brings together all the elements – piano, soloists, chorus and orchestra – from the earlier works. The extravagance of its demands in terms of performers, especially for a work of such relatively short duration, means that the Fantasia is never likely to find itself scheduled for live performance except in this sort of context. One has only to consider the fate of other works scored for similar forces – such as Busoni’s Piano Concerto, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on the Old 104th or Alan Bush’s Piano Concerto – to realise the inexorable force of this argument. But that does not mean that the Choral Fantasia does not deserve the occasional outing, and not simply on disc as a ‘filler’ for a set of the complete Beethoven piano concertos (which seems to be its usual fate). The main theme of the variations may anticipate that of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, but it has a freshness of its own and it takes some very different routes from its successor. Llŷr Williams successfully assumed the mantle of Beethoven in the opening unaccompanied section, and then presented us with some splendid bravura in the concerto-like playing that followed.

I have mentioned the contrast between the streamlined approach to Beethoven adopted by Carlo Rizzi and the grander sounds elicited from the BBC orchestra by Jaime Martin, but there was one major point on which both agreed. This was in regard to the seating of the orchestra, and in particular to the placement of the violins on the left and right of the stage. I have complained in the past in reviews for this site about the loss which the audience incurs when the violins are bunched on the left of the stage in scores of the classical and romantic periods. Time and again here, and most especially in the symphonies, we heard phrases bounced backwards and forwards between the first and second violins in exactly the manner which Beethoven clearly anticipated in his written scores. Any slight loss in body of tone from the violins as a whole (since with this arrangement the second violins are playing with their instruments facing away from the audience) is far outweighed by the increased clarity of the sound in scores like these – and, one might add, Tchaikovsky and even Mahler who also clearly anticipated this sort of layout. It shows that conductors such as Boult and Klemperer, regarded as antediluvian dinosaurs for their insistence on such procedures in the 1960s, had a very valid point.

This was a fine consideration in the context of a performance whose historical significance was clearly audible throughout, and not just as a celebration of the past. The programme notes, by such authors as Barry Cooper, Lindsay Kemp, Richard Wigmore, Edward Bhesania and David Cairns, added much solid information and enlightenment. We were also given full texts and translations of the sung items. The whole marathon event was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and will be available for a further 30 days on BBC Sounds. Those who missed it are well advised to listen, maybe in episodes, while it is still available.

A splendid launch to 2020 in Cardiff’s concert season, and I hope the large audience who patronised this event – and so clearly enjoyed themselves – will continue to attend future events both in St David’s Hall and down in Cardiff Bay from both these orchestras.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

1 thought on “Beethoven: the 1808 concert in Cardiff”

  1. There was a risk beforehand that this concert could have been too much of a good thing but in the event it was a total success. The power and originality of Beethoven’s music is astonishing even after 200 years. It was good to hear the lesser-known pieces too – why on earth is his Mass in C so rarely performed?

    The musicians gave their all. I expect they appreciated performing to a capacity audience – if only that were the case more often at St David’s Hall. Sundays can be awkward for those of us who use public transport but this really was an occasion not to be missed.


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