LSO/Haitink – Beethoven (6)

Beethoven
Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Twyla Robinson (soprano)
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
John Mac Master (tenor)
Gerald Finley (bass)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 29 April, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A fitting culmination to Bernard Haitink’s LSO Beethoven cycle, which has also been recorded for LSO Live. With some Beethoven symphonies – one thinks of the Eroica and the 7th – it is almost impossible to fail (although the difference between an adequate and an outstanding performance is clear enough, of course). However the Choral is like one of those great Michelangelo Torsos struggling to emerge from their marble blocks – you know instinctively that it is a masterpiece but sometimes even the most celebrated performers fail to release it, which was not the case on this occasion.

The LSO is a magnificent orchestra, but it has not always been a great Beethoven ensemble, its combination of aggression and sophistication sometimes achieving better results in Mahler, Stravinsky and Bartók but less satisfactory ones in the ‘classical’ repertoire. However, the LSO’s response to elder-statesmen conductors has been a different matter: one thinks of Krips, Monteux, Horenstein, Szell, Böhm, Jochum and Celibidache. Under Haitink, the very antithesis of the old-style dictator-conductor but still a figure of real authority, the LSO musicians consistently give of their best, and there is a pugnacious streak to Haitink that found its perfect counterpart in this pairing of Beethoven symphonies.

The First Symphony emerged as more representative of this composer than can be the case, the three quick movements being magnificently bracing, underpinned by Nigel Thomas’s superbly eruptive timpani-playing. This was ‘big-orchestra’ Beethoven that was also light on its feet and which had a fine lilt in the second movement Andante, which was both cantabile and con moto as marked.

From first note to last the Ninth received a performance, minor flaws aside, of extraordinary certainty and unremitting forward drive. No questing Furtwänglerian metaphysics here, more a Szell-like focus on sustained momentum and energy allied to a deep respect for Beethoven’s intentions.

With the LSO in full cry, the first movement climax reached a quite abnormal level of power and intensity, capped once again by magnificently ‘present’ (but not over-assertive) timpani. The scherzo also had formidable forward thrust and energy and gave the illusion of passing in a flash. As the slow movement made clear, this was no top-line Beethoven either. All-too-frequently it can seem like an extended solo for the first violins. Here it never meandered. Textures and balances were exemplary, as was the clarity of Haitink’s choice of the two base tempos, seldom better differentiated.

In the finale – with the LSO Chorus singing from memory – one might quibble at a few details of ensemble and intonation, but what wonderful energy infused the playing throughout: seldom can an orchestra’s strings have dug deeper into the triplets leading up to the choir’s explosion of “Freude, schöner Götterfunken”. The solo quartet, rather curiously positioned to the left of the stage behind the double basses, was notably well blended if not individually the most charismatic, save Gerald Finley’s imposing contribution at “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne”. Above all, Haitink sustained the finale’s momentum. Tension never flagged and it was a privilege to be present at a performance of the Ninth that did something like full justice to a great work.

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