Beethoven’s 5th

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Overture and incidental music, Opp.21 & 61
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Mary Nelson (soprano)
Victoria Simmonds (mezzo-soprano)

Methodist College Belfast Girls’ Choir

Ulster Orchestra
Thierry Fischer

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 13 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Mendelssohn has probably not received sufficient recognition for being a leading figure of the early Romantic Movement. After all he wrote a lot of works in the inherited, classical forms of sonata, symphony and concerto, indeed enough to keep him pinned to the last vestiges of the ‘classical’ era. But he also wrote in new forms and was inspired by new formats. Hence his early miracles, such as the Octet for strings and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both written when he was a teenager. His liking for Shakespeare places him firmly in the Romantic camp, alongside Berlioz; both composers becoming besotted with the Bard.

Thus the opportunity to hear most of his glorious incidental music to Shakespeare’s play was one not to be missed. The Overture and the remaining music are separated by a period of well over a decade, but the latter proves beyond doubt that Mendelssohn’s music did not decline after the early, prodigious output.

The performance by Thierry Fischer, signing-off his tenure as conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, supported by two sweet-toned soloists and a girls’ choir, singing in English, projected this delicious score with an unbridled energy, if not the last word in finesse or accuracy. Among the highlights were the ‘Overture’ and ‘Scherzo’ swept along with irresistible vitality. The ‘Song with Chorus’, surely an inspiration in style for Arthur Sullivan, was delightfully sung and the ‘Entr’acte’ and ‘Nocturne’ had warmth and humanity. Such pieces as ‘Fanfare’ and ‘Funeral March’, brief and rarely heard, added a little ballast to proceedings, and the ‘Finale’ summarises and reprises earlier themes in a very satisfying manner.

One of the fascinating features of Mendelssohn’s music is its almost complete lack of influence from Beethoven’s pen despite the overlap in their careers. Thierry Fischer conducting Beethoven’s most famous symphony wasn’t especially notable. Conducting Beethoven is a bit like being in a gunfight: if you don’t get the other fellow first he will surely get you; if the conductor cannot impose his authority on this most macho of Beethoven’s symphonies, then the result can appear anodyne and lacking purpose. There is enough in the music alone to enthuse an audience: energy, drama, and destiny. But other latent qualities surely include truculence, fear of the unknown, and a magisterial transportation to another level of experience – none of which featured in Fischer’s interpretation.

Fischer seemed to lack the willpower to expose this remarkable work to an inner world of imagination. There was plenty of impetus in the outer movements and some genuine moments of repose in the slow one – but a satisfying whole was not achieved. And there was some poor orchestral balance.

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