Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 28 January, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Live music can become a way of life, but hopefully not routine. One does though get used to a norm, and while a performance of an opera (staged or concert) – or any BBC Prom – would have one checking the start-time of it, nothing would have prompted your correspondent to anticipate that this particular OAE Beethoven programme – playing for a total of about 75 minutes – was beginning half-an-hour earlier than the ‘accepted’ time for this venue, and which seems to have no reason for doing so. Planned it was though, and however arbitrary the time-change seems, it is correctly advised in the Southbank Centre’s January diary and on the ticket (which press representatives collect on arrival); and, to be fair, most of the audience seem to have cottoned-on. Yet the fact remains that there would be no basis to check such a detail for a ‘normal’ concert such as this; anyway, and somewhat comforting, one was pleased to see at least one colleague arrive equally innocently ‘late’. Still, in the great scheme of things, and given the vicissitudes of life, it is of no real importance, yet the account of the Seventh Symphony was thoroughly fine, and rewarding, so not to have heard the Fourth as well seems a real pity, especially when your crestfallen reviewer was soon to be overhearing many enthusiastic comments about its performance (however, BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting this concert on 10 February, so all is not lost).
Anyway, during a period when Beethoven dominates the Southbank Centre’s schedule (a composer who will probably never “roll over”, Barenboim in the piano concertos, Takács in the quartets), this was the first of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Beethoven Symphony Cycle, being conducted by Iván Fischer, Vladimir Jurowski, Leonidas Kavakos (who also plays Beethoven’s Violin Concerto) and Sir Charles Mackerras. All save this Jurowski opener and the Kavakos concert begin at the ‘normal’ 7.30! And all are being recorded by Radio 3. There was though something gained, however unintended, from focussing on one work (and, anyway, having the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies juxtaposed, works not dissimilar in structure and tempo-relationships, may have proved cross-cancelling).
With playing from the OAE that was committed and joyous, sassy and spontaneous, with natural balances, the surprise was Vladimir Jurowski’s moderate tempos. It’s so easy today to play Beethoven as fast as possible, slavish to those dubious metronome marks, and missing out on the gravitas that Furtwängler and Klemperer, say, could discharge in this music. Jurowski introduced the symphony in expressive and plaintive terms, the pacing measured, the playing drilled but individually alive, the timbres distinctive and pertinent, the exposition of the first movement emerging seamlessly, its ongoing development (after a repeat, all such were observed) brought off with unforced momentum. Jurowski entered the second movement with barely a pause (not an original move, but a very effective one), its marked Allegretto a forward-moving march tinged with sorrow and glowing with feeling. Unlike most conductors, Jurowski (ditto Leonard Bernstein) appreciates the written tempo markings for the last two movements; thus the Presto scherzo had sprightly motion without rush and a related trio that avoided dawdling, and the Allegro con brio finale (launched in the same breath with which the scherzo ended) was, for once, not bounced about as a rapid-fire, ovation-seeking toy.
This was a stimulating performance, and an unexpected one, a ‘historically-informed’ traversal that avoided playing by numbers. The morals of this story are: always be alert and read the small print (or hope someone tips you off that being thirty minutes earlier could be crucial) and – concerning the OAE and Vladimir Jurowski – expect the unexpected in the most positive way.