Edinburgh International Festival – Beethoven 5 & Bruckner 3

Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Symphony No.3 in D minor [1889 version, edited Nowak]

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Günther Herbig


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 19 August, 2006
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

This year’s Edinburgh International Festival comprises an innovative new series. On nine evenings of the three-week Festival there are three self-contained concerts in the Usher Hall (each selling for £10.00). The first (at 5.30) consists of one of Beethoven’s nine symphonies conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras; the second (at 7.30) is a ‘masterwork’ (Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Messiaen, et al; and the third (at 9.30) consists of a Bruckner symphony (embracing numbers 1 to 9 and thus excluding the F minor and D minor symphonies, and also not considering the original versions of the Fourth and Eighth symphonies (quite different to the more-familiar revisions) and not being too concerned with the various versions and editions of certain other symphonies, of which, in reality, Bruckner wrote about 20!

It could be argued that Günther Herbig conducted the least satisfactory of the three (at least) versions of Bruckner’s Third Symphony, the one from 1889, which Leopold Nowak edited, that truncates the work and makes it more conventional (certainly in relation to the outsize and craggy first version from 1873 that conductors such as Inbal, Tintner, Blomstedt and Nott have made so convincing).

It was a pity that this ‘late’ concert was sparsely attended, not least because Günther Herbig (born in 1931) is such a fine Bruckner conductor, able to build long paragraphs and draw rich sounds from the strings. He conducted Bruckner 3 from memory and obviously knew every nook and cranny of it, rendering the dance-music of the Trio as delightfully gemütlich and the polka in the finale as rather gentle and very effective as such.

The actual execution of the work, however, left a good deal to the imagination; there were miscalculations and initially the brass was frequently too loud, especially so given the less-than-full hall, although, by the finale, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra was playing more comfortably within itself, and if wind-tuning frequently left a great deal to be desired, one also sensed a real rapport between the orchestra and conductor. Given more rehearsal time, Herbig’s unostentatious musicianship would greatly benefit this orchestra, its members warmly applauding him at the close.

Conversely, the Usher Hall had been packed for the Beethoven – by the way, the ‘middle’ work was Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet – a symphony linked (tenuously) to the late-evening Bruckner by dint of both works being used as radio signature-tunes during World War Two, the Allies taking the opening of the Beethoven and the Germans the apotheosis of the Bruckner.

The performance of the Beethoven (the cycle not being given in numeric sequence; symphonies 3 and 2, in that order, had proceeded Number 5) was further evidence of the long-term closeness between the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Sir Charles Mackerras (who first appeared at the Edinburgh Festival 54 years ago), although it’s the Philharmonia Orchestra that will play the ‘Choral’ Symphony on 1 September.

Mackerras and the SCO can be relied upon on for textural authenticity (timpani played with hard sticks, for example). Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony might be considered short-measure for a concert, but with repeats in the outer movements, and in a performance of this stature, it was enough – rather like viewing one great painting in a gallery.

From first note to last the symphony seemed all of a piece, and the ‘slow’ movement carried an emotional weight that was equal to the others. Speeds were swift throughout but always allowed for clear articulation; dynamics were restrained but so precisely calibrated that an orchestra of just over 50 musicians had an impact that was overwhelming – a great advert for a ‘smaller’ orchestra playing Beethoven – and the sight of the string players putting everything into the final bars was visually striking.

BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting the whole of Mackerras’s Edinburgh Beethoven cycle in September.

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