Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Freddy Kempf (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)
Amanda Roocroft (soprano)
Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano)
Stephen OMara (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 3 June, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
In the programme note for this Beethoven cycle, Daniele Gatti says, “I felt it was time to tackle the Everest of orchestral cycles.” By a curious coincidence, this is the 50th anniversary of Hillary and Tensing’s conquest of the real Everest; after these concerts one found oneself asking whether there are certain peaks which mountaineering conductors should leave unclimbed.
By another curious coincidence, London had just recently heard an Eroica from Frans Brüggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century which, almost perversely since it was an ’original instrument’ performance, achieved a level of eloquence and high-romantic intensity of almost Furtwängler-like proportions. By contrast, what we had from Gatti in the Fourth Symphony, with a ’conventional’ orchestra, was fast tempos – which would have stretched the best ’period’ band – and spectacularly failing to make these speeds work. Seldom can the Finale have sounded like Rossini. At least we were able to savour the joke of the movement’s phoney ending, which was done with operatic theatricality. Unfortunately, by then, we had had our fair share of fun listening to the bassoons gamely trying to play their semiquavers at a totally impossible speed. The first movement had adopted an almost similarly impossible Allegro, which didn’t give the woodwind much chance in the lovely second subject. The results were perfunctory in the extreme.
Theatricality also reigned in Freddy Kempf’s Emperor. Like a none too good TV-soap actor, who has only two or three stock expressions, Kempf either plays loud and assertively, thumping the bass line for added emphasis, or softly and ethereally which some might mistake for spirituality. Technically he is reasonably secure. Musically one cannot see, at this stage in his career, that he merits a complete Beethoven cycle. Having said that, the slow movement hung in the air at a gently flowing tempo and the link into the Finale was well stage-managed. What had one really wincing though was the sure and certain conviction that as soon as Kempf reached the Finale’s first forte episode something grossly non-stylistic would happen to disrupt the music’s flow – and so it proved. Unless one enjoys having every I dotted and every T crossed, this was not a performance to remember. The orchestra did its best in difficult circumstances but all-important woodwind balances were hampered by over-weighty bass sound.
The concert had opened with a fair to middling performance of Coriolan, which unlike some other performances at least opened and closed together. The pauses were well judged but little inwardness in the violin’s second subject.
The final instalment of the cycle found the Festival Hall full to overflowing, the sense of occasion palpable. Whether in response or not, the music-making moved up a notch, the Eighth conspicuously better played and more committed. Speeds were better chosen too, excepting the first movement that was too fast to allow real clarity of articulation. At least the development worked up a fine head of steam; the ’Allegretto’ was elegantly turned; the Trio graced with some fine horn playing; the Finale, taken more steadily than one might have expected, came across with visceral punch. The sum was less than the parts – because of persistent rhythmic over-emphasis, every sforzando, every forte, every fortissimo given with such relentless vehemence that the music was robbed of any spring in the step
Some of these problems afflicted the Ninth. Going for high drama from the very first bar, every incident along the way was over-played. Gatti fatally undermined the structure of the first movement – instead of creating a titanic battering ram to ratchet-up tension to the movement’s central climax, this actually passed by almost unnoticed, so badly had we been savaged already. The Scherzo, taken at something less than ’Molto vivace’ – curiously its reminiscence at the opening of the Finale was taken much more quickly – again suffered from every accent seized upon and remorselessly over-emphasised. The slow movement sang sweetly enough but was too flowing for the initial ’Adagio e cantabile’. There was then little possibility of a real differentiation of tempo and character when we arrived at the contrasting ’Andante moderato’ – the whole thereafter turning into a soft focus song for violins and ending up diminished as a result.
The Finale was redeemed by some particularly fine singing from the Philharmonia Chorus – but the movement’s opening was chaotic in a way one can be sure that Beethoven never intended. Gatti’s febrile conducting did few favours to his solo quartet; Alastair Miles started promisingly only to lose focus as the movement proceeded. Amanda Roocroft sounding squally from her first entry and Stephen O’Mara’s tenor struggled manfully to be heard against the overloaded military band accompaniment. On this occasion, Beethoven’s fervent hymn of optimism seemed forced and oddly out of step with the times. All men are patently not brothers. The gap between the first world and the rest grows wider, religious divisions intensify and the Future looks bleaker than the Past. In our Brave New World could Schiller’s humanist sentiments be past their sell-by date?