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Beethoven beginnings

Beethoven Festival: Heroic

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Wednesday, 28 August

Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

The Beethoven symphony cycle isn’t a new idea: the NZSO performed one just five years ago, under their previous music director, Pietari Inkinen. But it’s still a brilliant concept.

One of its joys is getting to see the evolution of Beethoven’s writing in a way that only a concert-hall immersion allows. And it really is quite a journey, because the First Symphony is worlds away from the Ninth (which awaits us on Saturday night). The former evokes the world of Haydn and Mozart, perhaps too much so. For me, the image that always springs to mind is that of someone not saying what they really think: it doesn’t feel like Beethoven is revealing to us his true character.

Still, it’s not without its pleasures, and maestro Edo de Waart is ideally equipped to handle this kind of work. In his conducting there was a clear sense of every note having been placed in relation to each other – the way the first movement recapitulation, for instance, was just that touch stronger, more hard-edged then the exposition. Especially enjoyable were the long, gentle woodwind lines curving out above the strings.

The second movement was characterised by exemplary poise and the light, almost skeletal lines of the cello section. Then the third movement’s staccato energy was carried through into the final movement, probably the best played of the lot, with a stately force that never lost the underlying dancing pulse.

The Second Symphony presented an immediate contrast. It’s not a radical departure from the first, but clearly has a richer, deeper sound and a greater feeling of suppressed energy. In general I was impressed by the sharpness of the tone-painting. Repeated crescendo passages unspooled into more languid sections; the mezzo piano portions in particular were sensitively handled; and the horns were at their commanding best.

The second movement was characterised by the Old World feeling that de Waart seems to summon up effortlessly – a kind of wistful clarity, as it were. Again I enjoyed the fine details, including the way the surging string lines were rounded off and controlled. I thought the end of the movement was a little oddly judged, though, and this malaise spread into the third movement, which failed to fire in the witty way required. All was well again, however, in the final movement, which delighted in its horn-driven energy, swelling cello lines, and a lively tempo with brilliant sforzandi.

After the break came the main attraction for (one suspects) most of the audience, the Third Symphony. (Not that much of an attraction, though: the hall was at best two-thirds full, by my estimate.) As with previous de Waart performances of this symphony, I perfectly understand that it’s a scrupulously accurate rendering, one informed by everything we’ve learned post-war about period performance. That’s apparent in the sharp tempi, if nothing else.

Nonetheless, I’d still like a rendition that conveys more of the excitement that the piece would originally have generated, something that restores its revolutionary nature, something with more contrast – more jagged edges but also greater languor. That said, though, this was still a powerful performance, one full of meticulously wrought details and crisp textures. Aside from one slightly fluffed note in the woodlands just before the first movement recapitulation, the playing was impeccable, with a sense of great naturalness as potentially disparate-sounding sections flowed beautifully into each other. The second movement featured more delightful details – the opening glissando in the double-bass lines, and individual performances of impeccable phrasing, shading and sensitivity, especially from Robert Orr on the oboe.

In some places a sharper attack would have been desirable, but overall no one could fault the delicacy of the playing. The different sections also showed off their versatility, with the horns producing a warm and tender call in the third movement but a much brighter sound in the fourth. In toto, if it wasn’t quite the arresting performance I might have hoped for, it was one nonetheless imbued with a certain grandeur and a clear mastery of form.


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