Mahler’s vision of the Beethoven Ninth excitingly revealed by Vasily Petrenko and the RPO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven and Mahler: Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Claudia Huckle (contralto), Nicky Spence (tenor), Matthew Brook (bass-baritone), The Bach Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 22.3.2023. (MB)

Vasily Petrenko (c) Mark McNulty

Beethoven – Fidelio Op.72, Overture
Mahler – Des Knaben Wunderhorn: ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’, ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’, ‘Revelge’, ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’
Beethoven (orch. Mahler) – Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125

This was a fascinating programme of Beethoven, Mahler, and Beethoven-meets-Mahler, performed with verve and conviction by a fine quartet of soloists, the Bach Choir, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Vasily Petrenko. Petrenko had stepped in at relatively short notice, substituting for an indisposed Andrew Davis, but especially during the second ‘half’, Mahler’s ‘retouching’ (Retusche[n]) of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, one would surely never have guessed. He and the orchestra fully entered into the spirit of the enterprise, viewing or rather hearing Beethoven via Mahler, without merely attempting to recreate. Such ‘recreation’ – ‘as close as possible to Mahler’s vision’, according to Petrenko’s spoken introduction – must remain a starting point, as opposed to a destination; the music still requires choices to be made, standpoints to be taken, just as in any performance. The crucial thing was that Beethoven and the Ninth in particular were rescued from their current malaise, in which deeply unsatisfactory, often plain inadequate, performances rob the music not only of its meaning, which will after all always be contested, but of any meaning whatsoever.

But first came the Overture to Fidelio and a selection from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, introducing, as it were, our two principal musical characters. The RPO immediately sounded on top form, and what a joy it was to hear this music with so large an orchestra. (The recent, domesticating onslaught on Beethoven has been entirely negative, leaving what should go almost without saying as a rare luxury.) Attack and polish were impeccable; tension was maintained throughout. A slight absence of greater line immediately after the start was soon rectified, in an impressive performance all around.

Each vocal soloist from the symphony was allotted a Wunderhorn song: a nice idea, though having applause after each song, the next singer only then coming on stage, broke continuity and might have been reconsidered. Moving downward from soprano to bass(-baritone), the selection began with Elizabeth Watts’s ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’. I quite liked Petrenko’s deliberate way with the song, though sometimes solo instruments were not entirely together. At any rate, Watts offered a sincere, communicative performance, intimate despite or perhaps even on account of the number of strings. A more alienated, unquestionably ‘later’ world than that of Beethoven was upon us, trumpets ironically connecting it with Fidelio. When the girl began to weep (‘Das Mädchen fing zu weinen an’), the accent, orchestral as well as vocal, on ‘weinen’ truly hit home. Claudia Huckle’s true contralto proved just as communicative in ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’, the sardonic note of the performance, pursued and intensified in the two songs yet to come, arising ‘naturally’ from Mahler’s writing, not least the orchestral marching; there was no need to ‘apply’ anything from without. Nicky Spence’s dark, urgently compelling ‘Revelge’ took us to the brink of Wozzeck, bones grimly rattling. Matthew Brook engagingly played the (holy?) Fool in St Anthony’s sermon to the fish, his face even offering a close-up glimpse of the open-mouthed congregation. Petrenko’s supply of orchestral colour and continuity was spot on. I could even hear Berio waiting in the wings: further time-travel, all the better for it.

The opening of the Ninth – surely the only Ninth in which even now one might not seek clarification, ‘do you mean Mahler’s?’ – sounded duly possessed, Petrenko’s judicious tempo ensuring urgency was not conflated with excessive speed or, worse still, metronomic inflexibility. Harmony and detail – Mahler’s as well as Beethoven’s, the former’s radical rewriting of some inner parts in particular immanent as well as merely apparent – once again emerged ‘naturally’, however much hard work may have been necessary to give that impression. Where earlier generations spoke of restoration of Beethoven’s letter, here one could experience restoration of his spirit. Whilst it may seem strange to speak of concision in this vast first movement, one can and should, unless something has gone horribly awry; one certainly felt it here. The battle royal of the development was won through counterpoint old and new, as much as harmony, Mahler (at times) winning the upper hand. The moment and section of return were cataclysmic, even carnivorous, for this was certainly no Beethoven for vegans. Mahler’s additions sounded close, at least, to necessary — and utterly convincing. The coda terrified as it must, yet nowadays rarely does.

A scherzo as energetic as any, awe-inspiringly so, judged to a tee the particular qualities of ‘a’ Beethoven scherzo as well as this particular one. How the horns, doubled in number, rollicked, strings danced, and timpani bounced! The trio was its bubbling and consoling self, its propulsion, crucially, an ethical as well as ‘purely’ musical imperative. The Adagio molto e cantabile may have been a little lacking in the ‘molto’ department; it felt swifter than, say, Furtwängler or Barenboim. But who knows what Mahler did? Petrenko rightly took his own approach, concentrating on the ‘cantabile’, enabling not only song but nobility to emerge, not least through fine command of line. The crucial thing was that Beethoven mattered once more. And if one heard much of what must have inspired Mahler, all the better, whether in the role of woodwind, sounding here close to a celestial organ, perhaps played on by one of those Wunderhorn saints, in harmony, or indeed in form. Presentiments of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in particular seemed unusually apparent.

Terrible sounds, against which the sincerest, most eloquent entreaties of cellos and basses inveighed in vain, opened the finale. When those strings reached the ‘right’ theme, relatively swift in Petrenko’s hands, yet never too much so, it proved infectious for the rest of the orchestra, as if the gift of music (and, thank goodness, string vibrato) had been discovered anew. Brook’s verbal intervention set the scene for a conclusion that took us not only from Beethoven to Mahler, but also from Beethoven to Mozart; Don Giovanni hinted at previously, we could now hear generations of response to The Magic Flute. In context, the Turkish March seemed to hint also at Mahler’s own ‘Revelge’. Clarity and commitment from the Bach Choir, as well as the solo quartet, ensured, in wonderful fullness of sound, that Schiller also received a due hearing. If this were Beethoven in brighter colours than we imagine, say, Wagner’s to have been, why not? Ultimately, it needed to be Petrenko’s Beethoven as well as Mahler’s, and so it was. Musical history is never drawn, or at least never should be, in a straight line. To do so would be to rob it, as well as music, of its humanity. The speed of the final bars, whilst not prepared in Furtwängler’s way, nonetheless echoed it from a distance. ‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen!’ That applies to interpretation too.

Mark Berry

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