LPO Beethoven Symphony Cycle – Part two

Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 1 December, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This all-change Beethoven cycle had a further twist: Vernon Handley replacing Jiri Belohlavek replacing Kurt Masur who would have conducted the concurrently-composed symphonies 4 and 5 as part of his number-order series. The change of symphony lost not only that juxtaposition but also the first-time-in-any-symphony use, in No.5, of piccolo and trombones; the Pastoral also features these instruments.

Great champion of British music that he is, Handley does conduct the whole repertoire; good then after his splendid Brahms 2 with the LPO in September (Read the review) that he was now conducting Beethoven. After Frans Bruggen’s temperate accounts of symphonies 1-3 a few days earlier, Handley brought a more traditional view. Repeats and orchestra-layout will be a theme of these LPO concerts. Antiphonal violins are mandatory for Handley, as with Bruggen; Handley re-positioned cellos and violas – cellos now left-centre – and moved double basses from left to right, timpani from right to centre.

Allowing the literally eleventh-hour call for Handley’s assistance might have compromised rehearsal time, the Pastoral emerged a mixed success, the first movement somewhat over-vigorous if not rushed, with ensemble a tad scrappy and horn-tone too prominent. The lack of an exposition repeat jarred, albeit this listener prefers to do without given the shape of the movement and the quietly-achieved coda; long-term the exposition’s omission feels apposite if initially questionable. ’Scene by the brook’ was wonderfully created – flowing, rhythmically supple, seamless. The final ’Thanksgiving’ was also memorable, intensely heartfelt, with a carefully judged blend of wind and strings. Indeed, throughout both symphonies, Handley introduced judicious dynamic contrasts and tonal shadings – achieved as much through his exemplary conducting technique as verbal request. The use of vibrato added to the colours available. If the scherzo’s peasants could have been earthier and less inhibited – aided by more characterised woodwind commentaries – and the ensuing ’Storm’ more elemental, this Pastoral, with a ’retaken’ opening movement, would have been rather special.

The Fifth was superb – rugged and trenchant, a real journey to optimistic arrival, Beethoven’s symphonic trajectory charted with discretion, pathos and power by Handley – he trusts the music itself to deliver – the LPO rising to the occasion with full sound and subtle input.

Another interesting repeat-problem arises with the scherzo – whether to play it through twice. It’s becoming more the norm to do so, yet the ’shock’ is more if its eerie fragmentation steals in after one traversal; in any case, the scherzo will make a ghostly return in the finale, a surprise best maintained by playing the finale’s exposition twice – this is just what Handley did in this magnificent performance. Suddenly Beethoven seems relevant again.

Click on the links below to read reviews of the concerts in this series

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