No.52 [BBC co-commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Reviewed by: Alexander Hall
Reviewed: 10 September, 2020
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
If Beethoven had been alive in 1963, he might well have nodded approvingly after reading Sydney Carter’s lyrics: “Dance, then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.” Those words make an endorsement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, performed once again in a veritable memory feat by the Aurora Orchestra in the largely empty Royal Albert Hall. Using some two-dozen strings, Nicholas Collon’s view of the Seventh was rhythmically taut and energy-charged, with a sense of sinews being stretched in the opening Vivace almost beyond the pain threshold, the trumpets at the close cutting incisively through the textures. Visually too it was easy to get caught up in the display of terpsichorean power, not least in the Finale, as the bodies of the upper strings swayed infectiously on the platform, the timpanist, armed with hard sticks, attacking his instruments with relish.
What stood out especially was the second-movement Allegretto, which Collon turned into a near-cousin of the Eroica’s Funeral March. This was appropriately solemn, mournful and dark-veiled in tone, a gathering dignified and contained in posture and mien but with little well-springs of deeper emotion rising to the surface, the voices of the woodwind offering moments of consolation and succour.
And if Beethoven had also been alive in 2020, he might have had a very profitable exchange – using sign language, perhaps? – with Richard Ayres about the trials and tribulations of tinnitus. For the latter’s new piece, with the intriguing title of No.52 (merely the number of his latest work), is essentially a personal response to hearing loss. It was preceded by quotations from the Heiligenstadt Testament, addressed by Beethoven to his brothers but never sent on its way, read by Paapa Essiedu to the accompaniment of a crackling old gramophone, handed down as it were through the ages.
Each of these three pieces about Beethoven carries a sub-title. The first, Saying Goodbye, uses the instrument closest to the human voice, the cello, for its opening melodic line. The anguish was palpable, contrasted later with the sweetness of a violin and astringency of a viola. As the movement steers towards its climax, the music is pulled in increasingly different harmonic directions until the ear becomes aware of deliberately distorting sounds – grating, screeching, hissing and buzzing – as the melodic fragments struggle to assert themselves. This is an extraordinarily effective representation of one composer’s reaction to growing hearing loss.
The second movement belies its title of Dreaming. In essence, this is a dialogue between keyboard and orchestra – I was reminded of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto – but with no attempt to pacify. The music is overlaid with sharp intakes of breath, screams, whistles and cat-calls culminating in a witches’ cauldron of cackling, the aggressive brass and razor-like percussion adding to the “Voices in my head” collage.Finally, Hearing Loss, perhaps the least effective and personal. There was the feel of a Mahlerian Ländler to the second section and echoes of Arvo Pärt in the concluding tintinnabulation. Ayres declares himself to be fascinated by the soundworld conjured up by Beethoven. The use of the gramophone to repeat each of the four sections, distorting and warping the material through an obsolete technical medium, is nevertheless a fitting commentary on our perception of outer and inner worlds.