Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 3 May, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
This was the third programme in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s complete Beethoven symphony cycle, the symphonies presented in numerical order.
The RPO entrusted its survey of this range of symphonic mountain peaks to the relatively unknown conductor, Janusz Piotrowicz. Born in England of Polish parents, Piotrowicz resembles the early home life of that great Anglo-Polish maestro, Leopold Stokowski. Indeed the visual comparisons were evident during this concert with the tall Piotrowicz displaying similar extravagant conducting gestures with wide sweeps of the arms imploring the orchestra to greater heights of expression.
Such visual displays of artistic commitment only tell part of the story when it comes to interpretative skill towards any composer. In Beethoven a lot more is needed to distil confidence in listeners’ minds and imaginations that something worthwhile is happening.
Piotrowicz was certainly committed to his task and displayed some real insights into the multifarious aspects of these two contrasting giants of Beethoven’s symphony cycle. He wisely did not try and make connections between the two works where really none exist. Thus the interval was a good opportunity to separate the pastoral elements of the Sixth Symphony with the Dionysian character of the Seventh.
Piotrowicz’s conducting style seemed to favour the former over the latter. Hence there was a sublime sense of stillness at the heart of the Andante con moto movement in the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony that was very touching. The first movement engaged the senses with its natural flow, the scherzo was taken at a comfortable gait, the storm section was suitably fierce and the ‘Shepherd’s Song’ produced a genuine culmination of Beethoven’s wishes to express his joy of nature.
The Seventh Symphony came across as safe but not tame. In general the tempos were a touch on the slow side and hence the truly demonic fervour that lies behind the musical structure failed to take wing. The players looked too comfortable with the speeds adopted despite the conductor’s ever increasingly extravagant gestures. The slow movement was too loud to supply the needed contrast between its outer companions and much-needed repose was therefore lacking. The finale is a difficult movement in which to fail for a conductor. Most orchestras get locked onto the ‘perpetuum mobile’ without too much effort but the conductor should stretch such comfort zones to more of a sense of exploration of their ability to balance speed with articulation. The Seventh, on this occasion, was just not thrilling enough to bring tingles to the spine.
In a world in which we are bombarded with second-hand sounds from CDs and the radio, the opportunity for live exposure to one of the great musical minds should not result in a felling of safety. But that is what, ultimately, what we heard under Piotrowicz.