Choral Symphony in a triumphant end to NZSO’s monumental Beethoven symphony cycle

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir, conducted by Pietari Inkinen
Soloists: Tiffany Speight, Anneley Peebo, Simon O’Neill, Peter Coleman-Wright

Beethoven: Symphonies No 8 in F and No 9 in D minor (Choral)

Michael Fowler Centre

Sunday 15 June, 3 pm

In the NZSO’s Beethoven cycle of 1995, the Choral Symphony was accompanied by Symphony No 1, an arrangement just as interesting as linking it with No 8. Each is similar in length, and both represent Beethoven writing in a style more traditional than some of those he would write or had written.

These juxtapositions, that have illuminated each concert, have been as rewarding as the performances themselves; probably none has looked as dramatic as this one. To begin, No 9 is nearly three times the length of No 8: I’d guess it clocked in at a bit over 70 minutes, and it breaks conventions by setting a famous poem as its last movement.

Unlike any of the earlier ‘classical’ examples, there is no slow introduction; instead it hits the ground running. It’s in the same key as the Pastoral and though its first movement is faster than that of the Pastoral, it’s also in triple time and there is a distinctly similar tone, that suggests the flavor of the Ländler of the countryside.  Yet neither at its first performance nor in the centuries since (and this year in the two hundredth anniversary of its first performance) has it become a popular work.

I guess it was pure chance that it was the first complete symphony that I bought – 78s of the pre-WW2 Weingartner performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, for 18 shillings and sixpence – at the age of about 19. It’s generally slower than Inkinen’s and most modern performances.  The records are still enjoyable: I have a soft spot for it.

The second movement, Allegro scherzando, led by a bright tune in the strings, is in common rather than triple time and so it’s a cross between traditional slow movement and a bright dance-like episode. The orchestra seemed to relish the abrupt ending.

To add confusion for the traditionalists, the third movement is Tempo di menuetto with a slower, more convincing minuet character than the minuets in either Symphonies 1 or 4. However, the bassoon lent it a kind of comic, peasant character that might reinforce a link with the Ländler rather than the genteel minuet.

If speed had given me a bit of trouble elsewhere, that of the last movement, Allegro vivace, seemed entirely justified: speed was of the essence, even though my Weingartner benchmark hardly supports it. What I enjoyed about the whole performance was a kind of serious-minded joyfulness.

Perhaps it was hardly fair to have it play the part of a light-weight curtain-raiser to the main event.

When we came back after the interval the empty choir stalls were full of singers in black and white, ranged from sopranos on the left to basses on the right, opposite to the orchestra where cellos and basses were arrayed on the left behind the first violins. Was there some arcane intent here?

The Ninth Symphony broke all sorts of conventions, the most obvious of which are the inclusion of a choral element with soloists in the fourth movement, and its length, which can take between around 65 and 75 minutes. I didn’t time this, but it was brisk and I’d guess would have been nearer 65 minutes, about 25 of which are taken by the last movement.

Though it is more common to dwell on the character of orchestration in the music of the later 19th century as more instruments, particularly percussion were incorporated and wind instruments became more varied and numerous; and technical improvements made them more versatile and in theory a bit easier to play. But in the hands of a Mozart or a Beethoven the imaginative employment of what was normally available in orchestras of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was often very beautiful, rich in nuances and arresting effects.

Beethoven’s increasing deafness mattered (especially to him), but his years of good hearing had filled his memory and he could obviously hear in his mind what his imagination created and could write down a good representation of it. So the very talented body of wind players in the NZSO could take full advantage of his colouful use of wind instruments in these two symphonies. Beethoven’s dramatic use of timpani was a relatively new phenomenon as was the introduction of trombones, in the last movements of the 5th, 6th and 9th, and four horns in the Choral. In the 9th he also uses a bass drum (tucked under the wall on the right side), cymbals and triangle. Thus one could well enjoy the diverting instrumental effects that Beethoven created, especially if one felt, for example, that the metronomic games in the Molto vivace (Scherzo in all but name) were a bit prolonged.

So a little more flexibility with the tempo might have better held attention. The fact is, however, that variety consists in the rallentandos that Beethoven marks at structural junctures in each movement, and in the dynamic changes that Inkinen marked vividly. It’s also true that the dramatic turning points deliver so much more power and impact if relative calm has preceded them, and Inkinen’s management achieved that most effectively. It was the slow (third) movement that seemed to lose its way; beautiful as it is and regardless of the care and subtleties of the playing, I lost concentration during the repeated episodes, though tiredness may have been to blame.

Everything that can be said about the fourth movement has been said: there are so many ways in which its structure can seem problematic or awkward, and commentaries these days often dwell on those. However, the unassailable aspects of Sunday’s performance were the orchestral playing: painstakingly careful dynamics, well balanced against choir and soloists, bluster set against ethereal moments, as the famous choral theme arrives, pianissimo, before chaos interrupts, and the violent fortissimi at climaxes that might be heard as ‘cheap’ effects but are usually wonderful.

The splendid chorus (rehearsed with obvious rigour and insight by Mark Dorrell, whose work hardly gets noticed in the programme) that filled the auditorium with clearly articulated German words was almost too vivid, exposing the (wash-your-mouth-out!) bombastic poetry, all in honour of something called “JOY”. Surely poetry of such passion and high-mindedness is about something of greater, more profound significance, even given that “joy” doesn’t seem to represent such a universal emotion as “Freude”! The substituted word “Freiheit” (freedom), which has often been suggested as what Schiller actually expected to be inferred from “Freude”, was in fact used at the famous 1989 concert under Bernstein at the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the smashing of the Berlin Wall.

The soloists are a special problem. Here, we had Peter Coleman-Wright in the bass part, launching the singing with the mighty exhortation to warring parties, “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne…”.  But surely “joy” is not the medicine for the chaos that prompts this mighty command; the word the chorus is looking for in response is surely “Freiheit”. Coleman-Wright’s name is familiar both in Australia and Europe; I’ve heard him several times in principal baritone roles for Opera Australia. In addition, at Covent Garden for example among many major opera companies, he has sung Dandini, Billy Budd, Papageno, Marcello, Gunther and Donner as well as Beckmesser.

It’s cruelly exposed, and he made a strong impact even if the sound, slightly uneven in production, was not a perfect fit for the job. Soprano Tiffany Speight (Australian) and mezzo Annely Peebo (Estonian) had a well projected duet of good clarity, and both displayed, as far as the roles allowed, attractive and theatrical voices. Simon O’Neill was the only New Zealander to make the cut (really! – surely we could have done better! On the other hand it’s important for us to hear top class overseas singers); he clearly relished his big solo moment, with commanding vocal incisiveness and physical stature – he looked as if he enjoyed singing this part, back home. When tenor and baritone reopened a soloists’ episode at Allegro ma non tanto, with “Freude, Töchter aus Elysium…” the low-pitched line didn’t allow their voices to emerge so well; otherwise the following quartet was glorious.

The great final peroration with the orchestra and choir in sublime and ecstatic accord leaves the soloists standing helplessly, contributing only with their faces in a semblance of engagement. But O’Neill could be detected participating, mouthing the words, quietly, with every appearance of involvement in the music and its message.

This time there was no hesitation from the audience. All able-bodied members of the audience sprang to their feet, clapping, shouting and whistling. A triumphant conclusion to a landmark symphonic cycle.


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