Beethoven from Inkinen and the NZSO – the excitement continued…..

BEETHOVEN – Symphonies 4 and 5

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 13th June, 2014

This was the second concert in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven symphony traversal with conductor Pietari Inkinen. Putting the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies in the same programme brought listeners face-to face – perhaps cheek-to-jowl would be a more apt expression – with one of the most cherished cornerstones of critical appraisal of these works. This is the long-established idea of a dichotomy that separates the composer’s odd- and even-numbered symphonies.

Well, perhaps the exception to the rule is the First – it’s demonstrably not of the range and scope of grandeur and tragic expression of the “Eroica”, or the Fifth, and doesn’t have the Dionysian energies of the Seventh, much less the cosmic reach of the Ninth. Even so, in its own way the work could be honorably counted among the composer’s symphonic “movers and shakers”, setting its first listeners on their ears with its very opening dissonant chord, and later in the work rumbustiously re-defining the concept of a “dance movement” in a classical symphony!

But as for the other odd-numbered works, it’s true that they’re invariable made of sterner stuff than their immediate neighbours in the canon – though closer examination hardly bears out some of the descriptions these “happier” latter works have garnered from well-meaning commentators over the years. In particular, the Fourth Symphony has  been both misrepresented with faint praise and castigated roundly, to the point where it became for a while a kind of “Cinderella” work, especially set against either of its two illustrious and more overtly “grunty” neighbours.

That usually perceptive and erudite critic Robert Schumann really did the work few favours by famously describing it as “a slender Grecian maiden between two Norse Giants”, unless he had some kind of Hellenic tomboy idea at the back of his mind, certainly romantic and dreamy in some moods, but mischievous, angular  and energetic in others. What’s surprising is the polarity of comment that the work has inspired in other quarters – Berlioz waxed lyrical about it, writing of the crescendo in the development section of the first movement as “one of the happiest inspirations we know in music”, and that the second movement Adagio “defies analysis….. so pure are the forms, so angelic the expression of the melody….one is gripped by emotion which by the end has reached an unbearable pitch of intensity…”

Contrast this with the reaction of the composer of “Der Freischütz”, Carl Maria von Weber, who, in a stylized critique set within the framework of a nightmare, had characters variously describe Beethoven’s work as “a musical monstrosity, revolting alike to the nature of the instruments and the expression of thought, and with no intention whatever but that of a mere show-off…” and the slow movement in particular “full of short, disjointed, unconnected ideas, at the rate of three or four notes per quarter of an hour…”. Evidently, in the realms of music appreciation, as in life, there’s “nowt sae queer as folk!”

Be it fulsome appreciation or savage criticism, it does put this so-called “Grecian maiden” of a work in a new light when encountering these responses. And it’s in that spirit that I offer these “contemporary” takes on a work that’s since been somewhat put in a “lesser” kind of category by its companions on either side – in my view, most unfairly. To my delight the NZSO’s performance of the music this evening demonstrated that Pietari Inkinen and his musicians thought so as well.

We were taken right from the first chord at the outset into a mysterious twilit world – somewhere, I’ve read someone’s description of the ambience created by this introduction as that of 4am, which I rather like! – one from which the steady tread of time led towards a sudden burst of light and energy from the whole orchestra, here superbly delivered, and followed by a number of whiplash chords which joyously launched the allegro, the playing replete with energetic, exuberant spirits.

Pietari Inkinen’s policy of employing (so far in the series) all the first movement repeats allowed us extra pleasure here, after which the players purposefully dug into the music’s development sequence, shaping the impulses towards the beginning of that amazing crescendo so vividly described by Berlioz in his analysis of the work. Alongside sterling work by the strings, the performance featured some magical wind-playing throughout, as well as on-the-spot support from brass and timpani.

The winds particularly came into their own in the dreamy, rhapsodic slow movement (what starry stillnesses were evoked at times!), as well as in the dynamically-driven finale – in the latter, both bassoon and clarinet literally threw themselves at their insanely manic solos and brought them off spectacularly!

In these performances it was the finales of both symphonies which capped off the pleasure for me – while I thought the Fourth’s Scherzo a shade bland in effect, wanting more rhythmic “point” and greater dynamic variation, the finale was a great success. In Inkinen’s hands, it took on the aspect of a whirling dervish, a molto perpetuum, exhilarating and positively vertiginous in its impact.

If the Fourth Symphony delighted the audience, the eponymous Fifth had an overwhelming impact, and especially so the finale – here, an unbridled victory celebration, at once exhausting and life-enhancing! So prodigious was the effect of it all that, in fact, conductor and orchestra received a well-nigh standing ovation at its end, one justly merited in direct relation to the excitement and sense of involvement with the music that was generated and communicated to listeners.

Conductor Inkinen made clear his intentions right from the outset, no sooner returning to the podium and acknowledging our applause than turning and instantly signalling his players to hurl those opening notes upwards and outwards, to galvanizing effect. Allowing only touches of rhetorical broadening with each appearance of the famous motto theme, he kept the music’s urgency and thrust well to the fore throughout the movement.  After this had run its course, the Andante movement which followed might have initially seemed unremarkable in its sweetness, but in fact it became for us a miracle of dramatic contrast, the orchestral playing by turns lyrical, rapturous and majestic in the music’s service.

Then, with the scherzo and trio, we were returned to dark, C Minor business with louring ‘cellos and basses and vigorous, forcible and heroic figures from the horns. The orchestral basses had already impressed with their sonorous playing of parts of the Funeral March of the “Eroica” on the previous evening, and here they demonstrated tremendous power and agility with the Trio’s rapid fugato-like lines, before finally giving way to the upper strings and the winds, who ushered in the work’s most mysterious and eerie passages.

These, of course, inspired one of writer E.M.Forster’s characters in the novel “Howard’s End” to imbue the music with the idea of a “great goblin walking across the world” – and the music’s stealthy, treading aspect was evocatively conveyed by winds and arco/pizzicato strings. It was here my only, very slight disappointment throughout the whole performance occurred, with that brief but potent strings and timpani transition passage from scherzo to finale.  I wanted to feel those sounds even more “cut adrift” amid the darkness and mystery, as if for a few pivotal moments the music and its performers and listeners had abandoned all sense and reason to a process of elemental coalescence!

Still, even if chaos seemed to me less-than-fully engaged, the goal, once achieved, burst about us all with unbridled exultation!  Here, Beethoven’s finale was a proper life-affirmation, moments of pure joy climbed towards and fiercely grasped again and again by a composer expressing the purpose for which he was put in this world – and we loved him for it and revelled in these musicians’ wholehearted and briilliantly-played celebrations of those moments and of the journeying towards them. The acclaim which greeted conductor and players at the end was richly deserved.






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