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Beethoven Returns

Beethoven Festival: Pastoral

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Friday, 30 August

Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

And so on to the third night of the Beethoven Festival/Marathon – and in one sense its peak, as this was the only night containing two genuine blockbusters, the Pastoral Sixth and the Seventh with its famous funeral march. The audience was greater than in the two previous nights, and the playing even better, too.

While I had reservations about elements of the other performances, the Pastoral was an unqualified triumph. It can, in the wrong hands, lapse into cutesiness or just go a bit flabby, but Edo de Waart’s disciplined, architectural approach ensured this was never a danger. The opening movement was characterised by a strong, burnished sound and a greater directness than is heard in most performances. The strings perfectly conjured up the buzz and hum of summer, an ideal balance between the sections allowed little details to emerge as and when needed, and the woodwinds sparkled, rejoicing in Creation, as one might have said in a more religious era.

Still better was the second movement, where the playing was calm, languid and extra-delicate. De Waart’s undemonstrative conducting let the music swell up and speak for itself; Bridget Douglas’s flute lilted and flitted like a butterfly and Patrick Berry was superb on the clarinet. It felt as if the music itself was yawning and stretching, at its ease. When the movement ended an audible hum of pleasure ran through the audience.

As the work progressed, the pace picked up, while the shattering impact of the fourth movement storm was enhanced by the way a certain reserve of energy had been held back in the previous movement. The orchestral colour was also beautifully delineated; suddenly all the playing seem to take on a shading of grey. Then the storm passed, the woodwinds floated up little bells of light, the horns sang out calmly and the strings played what might have been a lullaby, the warmth in their tone bringing us right back to the beginning.

The Seventh Symphony, of course, is quite a different animal. The famous line about its being “the apotheosis of the dance” seemed apposite here, and was at the forefront of de Waart’s conducting. It began with an intense, controlled energy and a fine gradation of dynamics. The solo woodwind parts were drawn out to a point of extreme tension, while the fortissimo passages hit like a thunderbolt. Tonally it was all spot on, somehow sharp and crisp but also rounded. I’d have liked to hear a tiny bit more from the double basses, but that’s a very minor quibble.

In the second movement, de Waart avoided problems with overfamiliarity by finding a surprising note of warmth amidst the generally sombre tone, as well as extra shadings of light and dark. One particular delight in the higher register passages was to hear the string lines spiralling and ribboning around each other. The third movement was full of contrasts: a surge of boisterous joy and an almost puppyish delight in places alternated with a solemnity that was in turn sometimes gentle, sometimes triumphant.

Then with barely a pause we were straight into the fourth movement, which united everything from before: taste, discernment and poise, but also energy of an almost savage kind. There was a slight irony here in that de Waart, never the most energetic of conductors, noticeably had a kind of half-seat on which to recline throughout the performances. But you don’t have to throw yourself around to enjoy a dance. It’s an attitude, an internal disposition as much as anything, and I could easily imagine de Waart at home dancing a sarabande in his slippers. He captured the spirit of the music exactly.


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