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Rollover Beethoven Review

And so the Beethoven Festival rolls on: after symphonies 1-3 the previous night, last night it was the turn of Nos. 4 and 5. The evening followed the ideal pattern that a Beethoven cycle so naturally sets up, the calmer, even-numbered symphony laying the foundation for the more tempestuous odd-numbered one.

Not that the Fourth Symphony is just an overture, of course. It has some superb musical writing, especially the “tense groping figures” of the opening (to quote the programme notes), which here were carefully handled so as to allow for a full release of energy later on. Harmonious connections were made between seemingly disparate parts, as in the previous night’s concert.

I wasn’t convinced, though, by the shaping of the inner movements. In the second, the syncopated string accompaniments lacked the requisite sweetness, and the whole movement had lost the clarity of the opening, although the rhythmic complexities were handled well. In the third movement, the call-and-answer passages felt a bit dry. But the final movement brought a fantastic, scurrying energy that merged seamlessly into the calm and serene passages that characterise the work.

(By way of intermission, as it were, I’d like to congratulate whoever now writes the programme notes. In the past I’ve often thought that the notes were perfectly designed to be off-putting to newcomers to classical music: ‘… in the recapitulation, the second violins play an inversion of the main theme but down a minor third, in a move which harks back to the tonal palette of the late Baroque period,’ etc, etc. Now, they still have enough technical information to satisfy the snobs while also giving a highly readable and indeed lively introduction to the work and the things worth looking out for if one is new to the game. Good stuff.)

Then it was on to the Fifth, officially – or at least, according to a poll of the world’s greatest conductors – the eleventh best symphony in history. (Top spot goes to the previous night’s showstopper, the Eroica.) It’s a dark, majestic beast, this one, and it got the requisite treatment. I loved the opening, somehow taut and controlled but edgy at the same time, the strings providing a study in contrasts between swirling passages and jagged bursts of sound. The first movement in general was utterly coherent and convincing. Maestro Edo de Waart’s mastery was evident in the way that all the little, scattered details came together in an avalanche of sound; the architecture of the work was also brought out beautifully.

The second movement was likewise a study in balance, with a sadder, more resigned mood underlying even the dancing passages, and the horns conjuring up a majestic, almost alpine sound. Delightful textures abounded in the third movement: a grander sound in the horns, and a dark, jagged, ‘night-watch’ feel to the double bass lines. There were some genuinely thrilling moments and a careful holding back of the tension, such that the restatement of the main theme came as a relief.

As with the performance of the Third Symphony, there were times when I would have liked to hear more risks being taken: this was Beethoven without the barbed wire, as it were. But the final movement summed up the whole piece, a beautifully calibrated piece of music-making that was sensitive to the details but kept the whole piece always in mind. The partial standing ovation it received was an apt tribute to its merits.

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