Edinburgh International Festival – Choral Symphony, Hammerklavier Sonata & Bruckner 9

Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Janice Watson (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (contralto)
Stuart Skelton (tenor)
Detlef Rolf (baritone)

Edinburgh Festival Chorus

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Charles Mackerras

Piano Sonata in B flat, Op.106 (Hammerklavier)

Llŷr Williams (piano)

Symphony No.9 in D minor

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 1 September, 2006
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Probably the only one of the 27 individual concerts (three-a-night spread, three-a-week, over nine nights during the three-week festival) in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival innovation – fully (and laudably) supported by sponsors Lloyds TSB Scotland – to have actually sold out, this Beethoven ‘Choral’ Symphony was urgent and propulsive, Sir Charles Mackerras proving that the older conductors get they don’t necessarily slow down!

Sir Charles first appeared at the Edinburgh International Festival 54 years ago. There presumably can’t be anyone else who has given such long service, and this year’s Festival has seen him perform the complete Beethoven symphonies at 5.30 in the evening on each of the tri-partite concert days.

There was no mistaking the genuine warmth towards him from the Edinburgh audience (and, given that Edinburgh had noticeably emptied following the ending of the Fringe, Tattoo, Book and Film festivals the previous weekend, I’m sure it was largely an Edinburgh – or at least Scottish – audience), and he honoured such loyalty with a volcanic performance, using one of the new editions (my guess it was Jonathan Del Mar’s for Bärenreiter, although timpanist Andrew Smith’s part looked, from my vantage point, to have the typical Breitkopf & Härtel logo on its cover). Mackerras certainly made the most of the changes we still don’t necessarily expect (the second bassoon’s counterpoint during the first introduction of the finale’s main theme, relegating the double basses with the same line to the background; also the halting horn rhythms before one of the choral bursts, that had come down to us as even, but are now shown to be syncopated).

Mackerras’s urgent direction of the Philharmonia players was indicative, sometimes to the point where you thought that the strings might not be able to articulate properly. The slow movement flowed, as we now think Beethoven would have expected it – now with the soloists in place at the back of the orchestra, in front of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. While not perfectly balanced (Detlef Rolf was rather light-voiced in the baritone role), the soloists reflected the performance as a whole: exciting but a little on the edge, which recreated the originality of the piece while perhaps not being a memorably classic performance to culminate the nine-symphony series.

Full marks to the Usher Hall stage-crew – for in less than 45-minutes for completely clearing the stage so that when the audience was allowed back there was only a piano on stage. This was ready for Llŷr Williams to take his place for Beethoven’s almost-contemporary pinnacle of piano sonata-writing to that of the Ninth Symphony.

Williams, exactly half as old as the Edinburgh International Festival – 30 this year, though carrying himself as if older, with his deliberate gait and stiff bow, hands grasped together in front of him – has been one of the clutch of pianists that Brian McMaster has favoured with multiple performances (following András Schiff and Alfred Brendel in previous years and – also appearing a number of times this festival – Richard Goode).

Very much his own man, Williams has a very enthusiastic following (a small standing ovation at the front of the stalls greeted the final chords), but equally a number of detractors, shaking their heads in consternation.

Certainly individual in his approach to the music, I liked Williams in the first two movements – carefully sounding the rhythms and, whatever his wayward approach and rubato, keeping a clear thread running through the music. I had anticipated him taking the Adagio sostenuto in an extremely slow fashion (he does seem to dwell in slow movements), and this is where I thought of the forthcoming Bruckner. The downside to this was the effect on the finale, which became more disjointed and lacked the propulsive cohesiveness to keep the fugal elements on track.

I have no doubt that hearing Williams play the ‘Hammerklavier’ again will take me closer to understanding his conception of the piece and nothing I heard at this performance would stop me hearing him again. What is important is that it is clear that he knows exactly what he is doing, even if he is totally convincing on a first hearing.

A quick repast was possible between concerts while the tireless Usher Hall crew repositioned chairs and music stands for a full symphony orchestra. There followed the best concert of the evening; a radiantly glowing account of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and new Chief Conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, fresh from their performance at the Royal Albert Hall the previous night.

The chemistry seems to be working well – this performance was fantastically secure with great brass, horn and Wagner tuba playing from first note to last, and Bělohlávek was more in-tune with Bruckner’s organic development than Williams had been in the ‘Hammerklavier’. In the bloom of the Usher Hall, the music unfolded in a way that I remember Günter Wand’s Bruckner did in the same hall in the late 1990s.

Given that the torso of the work that has come down to us (Bruckner’s finale never anywhere near completion), the massive symmetrical slow-fast-slow structure has always seemed to be me to be perfect as it stands, especially in a performance as this. Bělohlávek – in full concert dress, although his players were in their now established black attire – was ever attentive to balance on the night as he had obviously been in tempo relationships and transitions in rehearsals.

Here the final coda, as if opening a window on the cosmos, seemed to create a more universal and hence proper climax to Edinburgh’s Bruckner cycle than Mackerras’s more urgent, earthy climax to his Beethoven cycle hours before.

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