OAE Beethoven Cycle – 4: Symphony 9/Ilan Volkov

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

Rebecca Evans (soprano), Diana Montague (mezzo-soprano), Timothy Robinson (tenor) & Christopher Purves (bass)

Philharmonia Chorus

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 9 April, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Ilan VolkovA golden opportunity missed. Not often does one have the luxury of a period orchestra of 79 players. Nor are performances of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony by such groups an everyday occurrence. This concert should have been the momentous centrepiece of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Beethoven cycle and was to have been conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras who gave us such a revelatory Beethoven cycle with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006. Unfortunately, Mackerras succumbed to ill-health. He was replaced by Ilan Volkov.

Notwithstanding his having performed the Ninth in London recently, at the BBC Proms last August, Volkov was clearly miscast. Volkov might have been conducting Stravinsky’s Symphony in C rather than Beethoven in D minor. It’s fair to say that the Royal Festival Hall can be a problematic venue for authentic-instrument groups which lack the sheer amplitude of sound for such a large hall, especially one with a comparatively dry acoustic. However, as the OAE clearly demonstrated in its Schumann symphony cycle at the RFH with Sir Simon Rattle, this need not be the end of the story if the quality of the music-making is sufficiently vibrant to grab one by the throat.

Unfortunately on the evidence of this perfunctory reading, Volkov had nothing worth saying about this music (or if he did, he certainly did not communicate it).

Timings alone are frequently a poor indicator of musical value but in this case it is worth commenting on them. The first movement lasted just 14 minutes, its titanic central climax going for virtually nothing and internal balances were often problematic. The scherzo (with repeats intact) was frequently gabbled and lasted 13. The Adagio molto e cantabile was neither molto nor cantabile and – despite some characteristically stylish clarinet contributions from Antony Pay – it sped by in just twelve-and-a-half minutes (at least the violin’s filigree decorations allowed us to hear much woodwind detail which is frequently obscured).

Most disappointing of all was the finale, which despite lasting only 22 minutes seemed interminable, partly thanks to some oddly perverse tempo relationships which deprived the movement of its essential forward momentum. For instance, the opening recitative section was rushed through only to be succeeded by the most prosaic and reverential account of the famous ‘ode to joy’ theme on cellos and double basses, hardly allegro assai; later, however, once chorus and soloists entered the speeds were so extreme as to leave the singers struggling to keep up although this did not prevent Volkov then allowing tension to sag before the chorus’s climactic eruption of joy at “Freude schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium”.

The Philharmonia Chorus (numbering about 100) did its best under these unpropitious circumstances and the solo quartet, seated behind the orchestra, although well-balanced, frequently struggled to be heard. Rebecca Evans – who also took part in Volkov’s Prom performance – impressed, as did the ever-reliable Diana Montague. Neither Timothy Robinson nor Christopher Purves possessed the vocal power to dominate proceedings.

Beethoven’s Choral takes us to places where music had not previously attempted to go, to the extremes of tension in the opening movement, of mystery and inwardness in the slow movement and ultimately to unfettered joy in the finale. On this occasion it was as though we had listened to the notes but been short-changed when it came to the message.

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