Beethoven: 250 Years Young

String Quintet in C, Op.29 (1801)
180 Beats per minute (1993)
Sextet in E-flat, Op.81b (1795)

Members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra [Mark Phillips, Jeremy Bushell, horns; Philip Brett, Charlotte Skinner, Kate Suthers, Georgia Hannant, violins; Chris Yates, Catherine Bower, violas; Eduardo Vassallo, Miguel Fernandes, Helen Edgar, cellos]

Filmed on 4 December 2020

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 December, 2020
Venue: CBSO Centre, Birmingham

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s online events continued with this chamber programme marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in unexpected yet diverting fashion, two earlier works bookending a high-octane piece by a leading contemporary German composer.

Financial considerations doubtless occasioned the publication of the Sextet in E-flat, fifteen years after it was written, but this work – while not on the level of the ‘Les adieux’ Sonata to which it was harnessed – finds Beethoven drawing upon Mozart’s divertimentos to witty and amusing effect. The opening Allegro makes much of the keen interplay between two horns and string quartet, then the central Adagio unfolds around one of the young composer’s deftest melodies – the closing Rondo renewing the previous interaction with keen élan and not a little humour.

It may be among his earliest acknowledged pieces, but 180 Beats per minute is by no means atypical of Jörg Widmann (who, according to the programme, has taken on Mendelssohn’s lifespan) in idiom. Here it takes what was then the vogue for techno beats as the basis for an incendiary workout where two violins, viola and three cellos variously combine in rhythmic unison and canonic dexterity; always informed by unflagging energy whose denouement may be unexpected yet reinforces this music’s guiding tenet of ‘‘the sheer enjoyment of rhythm.’’

The highlight of this recital was its opening item. If hardly an unknown quantity, Beethoven’s only original String Quintet (the other two so designated were reworkings of earlier chamber pieces) is less often heard than those Quartets or even Trios preceding it. Yet this piece, written on the cusp of the composer’s ‘middle period’, has an expansiveness and emotional poise such as carries all before it – not least a first movement whose slow-burning majesty and constant sense of opening-out across fresh vistas was searchingly conveyed by the CBSO musicians.

Nor was there any lack of intensity in the Adagio, its eloquent progress only briefly disrupted at the start of the coda, while the Scherzo had an almost nonchalant quality as found contrast in its whimsical Trio. With its frequent underlying tremolandos and winsome coups de théâtre prior to the reprise and coda, the final Presto might seem almost operatic in content yet is no less focussed formally than what went before; something fully appreciated here, as the music surged forth purposefully toward a close the more satisfying for its last-moment decisiveness.
An excellent way for the CBSO strings (and horns!) to demonstrate their all-round prowess, and a programme stylishly rounding off a difficult year that this orchestra has come through unbowed. Further online events, scheduled for the New Year, can only be keenly awaited.

Further information on this recital at

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