RPO/Gatti Beethoven Cycle – Part 2 (27 March)

Beethoven
Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Freddy Kempf (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti


Reviewed by: Diarmuid Dunne

Reviewed: 27 March, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Beethoven’s First Symphony was wonderfully cheeky and humorous under Daniele Gatti in the second concert of the RPO’s Beethoven cycle. A brisk pace and tight, exacting playing brought great wit and lightness of spirit to the music. With its classical roots and Mozartian escapades one gets the impression Beethoven was indulging in a bit of pastiche for his own amusement. The whole piece was handled beautifully by both conductor and orchestra alike.

Freddy Kempf started full of fresh, youthful vigour and breathed life into Beethoven’s B flat concerto. But what began promisingly faded a little with Kempf’s impetuosity leading to such capricious turns of speed that the cadenza became a tad sloppy and marred what was otherwise an energising opening. The second movement revealed a seductive, languid touch if some curious heavily-pointed accents. The Finale was full of excitement, humour and youthful brio. Kempf’s light, staccato attack led to wonderful moments of playful skittishness, but inaccuracies crept in as his impetuosity again compelled him to run some hideous risks. It would be easy to suggest he reined in his wilder impulses, but I suspect the source goes where it must.

By the time he wrote his third symphony, Beethoven had moved on a great deal musically. The ’Heroic Symphony composed to celebrate the memory of a great man’ was originally titled ’Bonaparte’, but Napoleon’s self-aggrandising rise to Emperor enraged Beethoven who scribbled out the name. With its epic themes and immense power it caused Beethoven to claim, as late as 1817, that the Eroica was his favourite symphony.

A pity then that Gatti brought all the qualities that had worked so well in his interpretation of the C major symphony to this piece. Brisk and light from start to finish it was perfectly pleasant and entertaining, but there was something theatrical about it that made me yearn for a little more gravitas and profundity. Indeed the final movement was taken so quickly that the otherwise impeccable and well-rehearsed RPO threatened to go off the rails somewhat. In the concluding ’Presto’ I half-expected to see Tom and Jerry chasing in and out the instruments, the orchestra disintegrating with a catastrophic climax of broken strings, battered brass and pools of sweat. A bit cruel perhaps as this really was very well played and was certainly conceived with seriousness and integrity, orchestra and conductor working closely together to produce a coherent view of the music. The Beethoven cycle resumes on 4 May.

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