Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 24 November, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Recent Beethoven cycles in London have been jinxed. Wolfgang Sawallisch’s three-season Philharmonia Orchestra series was all passed to eleventh-hour replacement conductors, as was Kurt Masur’s traversal of the symphonies in 2001 (to Brüggen, Previn, Handley and Norrington). Happily, Masur is now embarking on this great symphonic canon – in numerical order over four concerts – and if the remaining concerts are given with the same freshness and conviction of this first one, then this will be something outstanding. It’s good news that the concerts are being recorded for the LPO’s CD label (being launched next year).
To play all three symphonies on one programme – especially with every repeat observed – makes for the sort of man-sized concert which once used to be the norm but is now a distant memory. That the evening was conducted with such unflagging zest and energy by a man of 77 was little short of miraculous.
However well one knows Beethoven’s symphonies individually, there is a special fascination about hearing them in chronological order. Rather like Proust’s three steeples of Meseglise, which seemed to change character according to where they were viewed from, Beethoven’s first three symphonies seem to take on different distinctions when heard in close proximity. Only four years separate their completion (1800-1803), yet the distance travelled from No.1 – already pushing at the boundaries of the classical symphony – through the larger-scale, more expansive No.2 to the musical time-bomb that is the Eroica was effectively underscored by hearing the works in sequence in one concert.
Speeds throughout were crisp but never perfunctory, fast but never too fast to undermine characterisation or articulation. For example, if this is not a contradiction in terms, the finale of the First Symphony succeeded in sounding faster than it actually was; in other words, the tempo was judged to a nicety. Similarly, Masur’s choice of speed for the opening movement of the Eroica was an object lesson of the conductor’s art in the way that it was all-encompassing without the need for obvious tempo deviations.
Under Masur the London Philharmonic plays with real character and disciplined cohesion. The string sound is lean, lithe and exceptionally well balanced, the brass is never overbearing, and the individual woodwinds are full of personality. On this occasion the timpani was rather reticent (but better that than the alternative).
All three performances (Masur is using the brand-new Breitkopf & Härtel edition, which post-dates Bärenreiter) projected an absolutely convincing and coherent sense of fully-formed Beethoven style, especially the First Symphony and the Eroica: forceful, rugged, forward-moving and paying the most careful attention to dynamics, especially to differentiating those all-important f, ff and sfz markings in the Eroica. With music-making of this level of rightness, detailed comment is superfluous. However, the Eroica’s ‘Funeral March’ was presented with extraordinary drama, depth and momentum, whilst the symphony’s great arc came full-circle and reached its cathartic resolution at precisely the right moment in the finale before the patiently exultant coda. It’s performances as good as these that keep us going to concerts.