Elim Chan’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the RSNO is one of the best

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Jörg Widmann (clarinet), Dunedin Consort, Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Elim Chan (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 28.10.2022. (BBS)

Elim Chan and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Haydn – Symphony No.39
Jörg Widmann – Echo-Fragmente
Beethoven – Symphony No.5

We are lucky in Scotland to have one of the finest symphony orchestras in Britain, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and also one of the best period instrument ensembles, the Dunedin Consort. This concert featured both of them, individually and together. The two individual segments were truly stunning, but I found the combination forced and unsatisfying. I will explain the thinking behind the collaboration in due course but let us start at the beginning.

A large and unexpectedly youthful audience had turned up for the concert. It has been a source of concern over the years I have been writing these reviews that the audience was getting older, even as the players were getting younger! There had obviously been a concerted effort on the part of the RSNO to reach out to the younger generation, presumably with the lure of one of the best known and indeed best symphonies in the repertoire, Beethoven’s Fifth, and there were large groups of schoolchildren, as well as families in attendance. It was a heart-warming sight, and I hope these young people were thrilled by the wonderful music-making.

What greeted them at the start was not the RSNO, but a group of players from the Dunedin Consort, the early music group founded by Susan Hamilton and Ben Parry in 1995, and now under the musical direction of John Butt. I must declare an interest here, as I have sung several times with the Dunedins, and indeed recorded Bach’s St Matthew Passion with them in 2008 (a recording which has been much praised). There was no singing tonight, and they were playing Haydn, so I reckon there can be no conflict of interest.

The Haydn they played was the Symphony No.39 in G Minor, nicknamed Tempesta di Mare (Storm at Sea), dating from 1765, when the composer was 33. It is the first of his minor key symphonies (a rarity up to then), and introduced the Esterhazy court, and then the world, to the musical representation of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), a proto-Romantic German movement of the mid to late-eighteenth century in literature and music, which gave free expression to feelings and emotions felt to have been repressed by the prevailing rationalism of the Enlightenment. Whether Haydn was consciously reacting to this movement is uncertain, but this symphony is quite dramatic in its intensity, especially in the outer movements, and hints of what was to come, both from Haydn himself and, particularly, Beethoven a few years later, are manifold.

The Dunedin Consort, on this occasion without a conductor, but led from the front desk by the leader, Matthew Truscott, played the symphony as if their lives depended on it, with great verve and expression. The fabulous sound of four natural horns, played pointing up in hunting manner, added a thrilling extra dimension to the sound, as did the visceral sound of gut strings, a distinctive feature of period bands. Playing at 430Hz, probably the tuning of orchestras at the time of Haydn, it gives a slightly more mellow sound than the more normal modern pitch of 440Hz.

Haydn symphonies can often be thrown in by an orchestra as a harmless way of starting a concert, reasonably short movements with nice tunes and no great emotional involvement, a sort of warm up for the main attraction after the interval. That was certainly not the case here, and I was once again reminded what a superb composer Haydn was. His place in history is confirmed, but the accident of his being contemporaneous to Mozart and Beethoven, two of the all-time greats of music, was unfortunate. Hearing this symphony played as it probably sounded at the time it was written, and with such verve and commitment by the Dunedin Consort, reminded me of Haydn’s real quality as a composer, and the ovation which greeted the players at the thrilling climax of the symphony was real and merited.

But why, you ask, was the Dunedin Consort there at all, in a concert by the RSNO? Thereby hangs a tale, as Shakespeare said! Apparently, it was a discussion about the second piece in the programme, Echo-Fragmente by Jőrg Widmann, that set the powers that be along the path to the three-year partnership established between the RSNO and the Dunedin Consort which began tonight. Various future projects are envisaged and programmed, again playing both as separate entities and together at the same time. The basic idea seems to be that each orchestra can learn from the other in terms of correct period practice and understanding of performance styles. If it works, it is a laudable aim, and I think, in particular, the RSNO can benefit from learning period style when they play anything before Schubert or Berlioz.

The piece in question was written by the clarinettist, composer and conductor, Jőrg Widmann in 2006, for two orchestras in Freiburg im Breisgau in southern Germany, where he was teaching at the time. In honour of Mozart’s 250th anniversary. The two orchestras approached Widmann to write a new piece for both together, and he wrote Echo-Fragmente for the occasion. The starting point was the fact that they played at different pitches in their concerts, 430Hz and 440Hz respectively, and Widmann looked to explore two groups playing simultaneously at different pitches in one piece.

I have to admit my heart sank at the prospect of total cacophony, but the result was less awful than I feared. He has produced a soundscape of fascinating colours, using various extra instruments, like celeste, guitar and accordion and his own solo clarinet provides a link between the two temperaments, employing new techniques of playing to twist his own tonality. Widmann is certainly a master of his own instrument, cajoling extraordinary sounds out of his clarinet, including percussive effects and breathing noises.

The problem for me with soundscapes is that, invariably, by their very nature, they don’t tend to go anywhere structurally, and for me, that leads to a certain sense of boredom. With no real melody or line, the piece meanders, not unpleasantly, for twenty odd minutes in two sections, one slow and one a little faster. There was also no sense in which the composer sought to utilise the different music styles of the two orchestras, apart from the differences in pitch, which to my ears only really manifested themselves when the two string sections played block chords around the same time. In other words, what I think I am saying is that this was a lost opportunity really to explore the contrasts and similarities of the two ensembles, leaving behind only a modernistic soundscape of limited interest. I did, however, meet a friend at the interval who declared herself mesmerised and delighted by the piece, so chacun à son goût, as they say!

After the interval, we were treated to a simply scintillating performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by the force of nature that is Elim Chan, the RSNO’s Principal Guest Conductor. Taking on board many of the advances in period playing that ensembles like the Dunedin Consort have revealed, Chan led us through a whirlwind of spectacular sounds which made me, for one, hear this wonderful symphony with new ears. It wasn’t just that it was fast, it was fast for a purpose, a revelatory reading that showed once again the phenomenal genius of Beethoven, writing at the cusp of the Romantic period, and summing up the baroque and classical periods which had preceded it.

Most people know the story of the symphony’s first performance, the interminable charity concert which featured the Sixth Symphony (the Pastoral), the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy, ending with the Fifth, but retelling the story doesn’t make it any less extraordinary! Furthermore, Beethoven’s irritation with Napoleon’s usurpation of the Revolutionary fervour in France, and indeed the terrible excesses of ‘the Terror’ in the aftermath of the Revolution, doesn’t diminish the deep longing the composer felt towards the idea of revolution and the brotherhood of man, manifested in the struggles of the Fifth Symphony, and gloriously resolved in the Ninth.

Chan, eschewing the baton and using her hands, her arms and her whole body to convey to the orchestra what she wanted from it, produced a performance of true magic. Have those first notes ever thundered more dramatically? Have the huge brass chorales later in the piece ever sounded more magnificent? Have the scurrying cello passages ever created such excitement? Have the occasionally over-extended final chords ever sounded righter and more logical?

The answer is probably yes, but only occasionally, and this was one hell of an occasion! I only hope that all the children at the performance could realise that they had not only heard one of the great works of all time, but also one of the best interpretations anyone has heard!

The Hong Kong born conductor is a phenomenon, and we are lucky to have her here as our Principal Guest Conductor. Haste ye back, Elim!

Brian Bannatyne-Scott

This review will all appear on Edinburgh Music Review.

1 thought on “Elim Chan’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the RSNO is one of the best”

  1. How well put and kindly written! I’ve attended the concert and very much enjoyed the first and third parts. The second one? Yes, boredom, and looking forward to the finishing line. I was wondering whether someone can like this kind of ‘soundscape’ the way he/she likes other music (= be delighted, be inspired). Now I have the answer – the reviewer’s friend did.
    The real test of the perception of the quality of the piece would’ve been if it were played last.


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