Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Janusz Piotrowicz – Beethoven Cycle – 4

Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Anna Leese (soprano)
Louise Poole (contralto)
Shaun Dixon (tenor)
Krzysztof Szumanski (bass)

London Concert Choir

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Janusz Piotrowicz

Reviewed by: Edward Lewis

Reviewed: 10 May, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Founded 60 years ago by Sir Thomas Beecham, handled with care by some of the greatest conductors of the last half century, and with a stated aim of offering “the highest possible standards of music-making” and “world-class performances”, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has a lot to live up to. In tackling a Beethoven symphony cycle, the stakes are raised again – with music that is hugely popular, technically demanding and much recorded. I merely mention this, along with the observation that bravery quickly transcends into misguided foolhardiness as the ability to succeed diminishes.

The opening of the Eighth Symphony requires the same adrenaline-fuelled passion, lust-for-life recklessness and abandonment of all nurtured reserves as the opening of a new Ikea does amongst the social strata who think calling a child Chardonnay doesn’t break the law against Cruel and Unusual Punishments. The opening that Janusz Piotrowicz revealed to us had, sadly, the effect of wandering listlessly in the aforementioned Ikea and realising that beige is on special offer. The orchestral tone lacked weight, with, ironically, the more subdued string phrases being singular in carrying real conviction. Despite some superbly tight phrasing among the woodwind players, phrase endings seemed to be discarded, and ensemble among the strings, complete with a rather featureless tone, bordered on problematic.

Although a sense of controlled direction began to emerge during the delicate second movement, the lack of melodic flow between orchestral sections, and the laboured statement of the string theme in the pleasantly rustic third movement marred this feeling. This growing sense of boredom seemed to seep from the eccentric Piotrowicz, and swamp the orchestra – I saw several string players briefly give up in some of the semiquaver passages out of sheer despair – and movement endings were effectively left to die unceremoniously.

Yes – the Eighth Symphony is technically a ‘Classical’ symphony. But, when all’s said and done, Beethoven was barking mad, self-destructive, and a serious rival to Howard Hughes for the title of most unexpectedly successful lunatic. He was not, ever, bored. And, frankly, he might well have been alone in that respect had he been present at this performance.

With the mighty Ninth Symphony, the RPO demonstrated somewhat more energy, especially in terms of the string tone, with some solidly resounding orchestral tuttis. The grand opening of work was marred, sadly, by the grating sound of a telephonic harp performing glissandos in C major. To my intense disappointment, the owner of the phone failed to do the noble thing and swallow the offending instrument.

The regal weight brought to bear by Piotrowicz was obscured by minor if ever-present ensemble problems, although he did reveal a real undercurrent of brooding darkness, welling out of the depths of the opening movement, and a sense of subdued excitement and growth through the spirited scherzo. The placid stillness of the Adagio was almost captivating in its tranquil beauty.

Unfortunately, the rising tension towards the last movement was broken by the inexcusably untidy orchestral recitatives, and the grandeur of the opening baritone passage was lost in Krzysztof Szymanski’s upper ranges. Shaun Dixon’s tenor voice, solid and buoyant though it was, seemed unable to compete with the orchestra for aural attention. This wasn’t a problem for Anna Leese’s clear, if slightly angular soprano timbre. The gem of the vocal quartet, however, was the gently confident Louise Poole, with a voice that hinted at luscious hidden depths and a resonant tone that beautifully carried her well-crafted performance.

Once launched on its slightly startled way, the members of the choir exhibited some well-grounded evidence of good technical training, which served them well during the agilely negotiated initial choral passages. Sadly, the singers’ stamina seemed overly tested (admittedly by what is a very grueling writing), and as this began to take its toll, technical inaccuracies began to multiply, most notable in a loss of ensemble in the lower parts.

What of the climactic rapture that Beethoven engenders by the close of his last symphony? Lost, presumed wandering the floors of a mythical Ikea in the doldrums of apathy!

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