Mention Ludwig van Beethoven to someone on the street and it is highly likely that the response back will be “da-da-da-dum”, those four notes from the start of the Fifth Symphony. Ask someone with a bit of musical knowledge to describe him and you are likely to be told that he was a genius, a master composer who became profoundly deaf but who revolutionised the symphony and set the bar for everyone that followed. Beethoven himself said on one occasion, “what I am, I am myself. There are will be a thousand princes; there is one Beethoven”.
But that one Beethoven did not leave just one symphony to showcase his talents. His nine symphonies are probably better known than any other composer’s similar works and even if you don’t know classical music that well, you will likely have heard something of them at some point. The Ode to Joy from the Ninth for example, parts of the Pastoral (Sixth) from some television ad or maybe the second movement of the Seventh which sets the scene at the end of The King’s Speech. You might not be able to say what the work is, but you know who wrote it.
With that in mind, a chance to hear all nine symphonies performed live is a rare thing – this year, both Wellington and Auckland audiences got the chance. No wonder that the last four days have seen full houses at the Auckland Town Hall as the NZSO under its Music Director Pietari Inkinen took us on a fascinating journey from First to Ninth. The NZSO has in fact done a Beethoven cycle before in the mid-1990s under the late Hungarian conductor Janos Furst. But this 2014 cycle was done in numerical order over four marvellous concerts which allowed us to hear how Beethoven’s musical style developed over his lifetime.
Day 1: Symphonies 1 and 2 in the first half with the massive Eroica in the second half.
Tracing Beethoven’s development as a symphonic composer is an interesting exercise. If you looked at who else was around in his early days, Haydn was still alive and Mozart had only recently passed on. Beethoven’s first two symphonies were definitely influenced by his predecessors and teachers but they are not timid works. They are the voice of a confident young composer.
There are similarities between the First and the Second. They start quietly with one note before settling in to the main themes proper, something that might have puzzled audiences of the time. Beethoven did not hold back with his new ideas and challenges for the orchestra and one contemporary critic said of the Second that it was a ‘hideously writhing, wounded dragon which refuses to die’. Goodness knows what he would have thought of Wagner or Mahler.
With a good tempo, clarity and excellent dynamic shading, the NZSO’s performances of the first two symphonies were an excellent start to the cycle. With a full complement of string players on stage, it seemed clear that Maestro Inkinen’s interpretations called for depth of sound. He also achieved the critical balance of sound between the strings and winds and woodwind which give the symphonies colour and character.
The Third Symphony, more commonly known as the Eroica, marks the start of Beethoven’s “middle” period. No-one else could have written this revolutionary symphony, a grand work with the first movement alone longer than most other symphonies of the time. Popular opinion on the work at its premiere was divided – some loved it, others didn’t think it worked. Originally dedicated to Napoleon when he was First Prefect, Beethoven angrily scratched out the dedication on hearing that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor and simply put ‘to the memory of a great man’.
Quickly putting a less-than-perfect start aside, the orchestra settled into its work with gusto. The second movement funeral march was perfectly weighted between the emotional tensions of grief, past reflections and solemnity. Throughout, the exceptional quality of the wind and woodwind playing in particular was a standout highlight, not only of this concert but throughout the cycle. By the end of the finale, that coruscating energy that is so characteristic of Beethoven shines through and we are reminded once again how great that symphony dedicated to a great man really is. The audience chatter leaving the Town Hall is animated and we all look forward to the next day.
Day 2: Da-da-da-dum ! No mucking around from Maestro Inkinen at the start of the Fifth, on to the podium, quick nod to the audience and an immediate downbeat.
Much ink has been used to speculate as to the meaning of the four notes – fate knocks at the door, the song of a yellowhammer and so on. To my mind, the meaning behind the notes is not as important as how those notes are played. This performance lived up to expectations – dark, dramatic and brooding where it needed to be but not forgetting those passages which are light and graceful (yes, they do exist).
Perhaps we had some first-time concert goers in the audience this evening. Their applause punctuated every movement. Conductor and orchestra remained unflappable and completely focused. It was thrilling. Maestro Inkinen’s conducting was secure as well as energetic. In both the Fourth and the Fifth, the power and dynamism that are critical to both were conveyed with elegance and attention to detail, particularly dynamically.
If I have one favourite Beethoven symphony, it has to be the Fourth and as the symphonies are being played in sequence, this came first. An interesting fact, one I was not aware of until now, was that it is the least performed of all nine symphonies. Schumann famously described the Fourth as a slender Grecian maiden between two Norse gods. I think that description is somewhat unfair as the Fourth stands by itself as a well-written, if slightly less dramatic, work.
Leonard Bernstein described the beginning of the symphony best by referring to its “mysterious introduction which hovers around minor modes, tip-toeing its tenuous weight through ambiguous unrelated keys [with reluctance] to settle down into its final B-flat major.” When it does settle down, there is a burst of positive energy, rumbunctious in fact. While not as awe-inspiring as the Third, there is drama interwoven in the Fourth with a distinct sense of fun throughout the piece. All of this was conveyed very well by conductor and orchestra and made for a very satisfying first half.
Day 3: After the drama of the Fifth, the pleasant landscapes of the countryside in the Pastoral Symphony (6th) and the emotional tension in the Seventh.
In an illuminating pre-concert talk by Associate Professor Allan Badley from the University of Auckland’s School of Music, he put the viewpoint that Beethoven’s aim in the Sixth might have been to demonstrate his understanding of the ‘pastorale’ setting in music, a vehicle employed by several composers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Given that Beethoven loved nature and walking around the countryside, perhaps it was inevitable that he would take this vehicle and make it his own.
The five moments all have specific titles which could easily have been paintings or reflections of travel to or a journey to the country. Beethoven himself cautioned against the painting motif and remarked that the music was more an expression of feeling than painting and certainly that last movement and the subtitles of cheerful feelings in the first and last movements were likely specific references.
A distraction by one errant cellphone at the very end of the second movement aside, these feelings of nature were conveyed gracefully and delicately, a pleasure in every respect.
In the second half, Maestro Inkinen and the NZSO were in familiar territory in the Seventh, having performed this as part of the subscription season a couple of years ago.
In some respects, Beethoven reverts to some of his earlier ideas with the start of the Seventh but takes the huge sounds of the Fifth along with it. One composer who attended the premiere of the Seventh was Louis Spohr. Spohr reported that Beethoven conducted the orchestra at time aggressively, tearing his arms with a great vehemence at one point and jumping in the air at another. No such theatrics from Maestro Inkinen on this occasion but firm direction nevertheless. The last movement in particular was taken at a cracking pace but was never out of Inkinen’s firm control.
Such a barnstorming performance had many on their feet. But there’s one more concert to go yet.
Day 4: All good things must come to an end and that they did with the Eighth and Ninth on Sunday afternoon.
Ever since it was premiered, there has been debate as to whether Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony is better than the Seventh. Beethoven himself once remarked to his student Carl Czerny that the Eighth was so much better than its predecessor and was consequently less popular. Don’t examine that logic too closely. Tchaikovsky also thought that the Eight’s last movement was one of Beethoven’s best symphonic works.
No signs of fatigue within the orchestra at all, I note. We heard energetic and happy playing of what is an optimistic piece – remarkable given that Beethoven’s non-musical life at the time was not happy. But that’s not what everyone came to hear.
I must admit having heard enough performances of the Ninth over the years, I am somewhat jaded about the work, brilliant in scope though it is. Most people would probably give me a very nasty look at this point. In fairness, I should probably look at what he wrote around the same time– the last piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis and the last string quartets, all incredibly challenging works – to appreciate the Ninth better. Verdi was right to say that the first three movements are marvelous. Most people would, however, disagree with him on the last movement – it is triumphant and joyous.
Soprano Tiffany Speight, mezzo Annely Peebo, New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill and bass Peter Coleman-Wright all performed strongly together with a fired-up Auckland Choral. But really, the heroes of the piece were the orchestra who never let their guard down for a minute and their seemingly tireless Music Director Maestro Inkinen. You have to take your hat off to everyone for showing incredible stamina over an incredible four days of intense music.
Not surprisingly, the response from the audience was ecstatic. After such a well-executed marathon, how could you not be on your feet and applaud ? Certainly everyone in the Auckland Town Hall on Sunday afternoon agreed.
So, at the end of over 346 minutes of music, what is left to say ? I think that this was an excellent cycle of some of the best-loved and most important works in the classical repertory. Congratulations to both the NZSO and Maestro Inkinen for some of the most memorable orchestral concerts seen and heard in recent memory. Bravo !