Great start to NZSO’s Beethoven festival with the first three symphonies

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen

Beethoven: Symphonies No 1, 2 and 3, in C, D and E flat respectively

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 12 June, 6:30 pm

Here is the third in Pietari Inkinen’s great symphonic cycles, following Sibelius and Brahms. This time, of course, the greatest such creations in the whole history of symphonic music.

It was interesting to hear Inkinen’s conversation with Eva Radich on RNZ Concert in which, as far as I know, not having caught all of it, neither remarked that simply to tackle this music is to make a statement about the world-class character of the orchestra, as well as to suggest something about the conductor’s feeling about his own readiness to undertake such a grand and formidable project.

Even in the decades immediately after Beethoven’s, it has pleased many critics to dismiss the first and second symphonies, in comparison with the later masterpieces. To so judge them is to overlook the fact that by 1800 when the second was composed, no existing symphony could come anywhere near them, apart perhaps from Mozart’s last three. How ridiculous it is to compare a composer’s relatively early works with more complex and profound music that might have emerged later.

To play these three in the same evening was in fact to allow us to hear the clear kinship that they share. The stately and confident character of the opening of the C major symphony announced at once that Beethoven had absorbed and surpassed, at least in adventurousness, the models of Haydn and Mozart.  Though one must be careful not to confuse those elements that might represent ‘progress’ (a dangerous notion) with inspiration and creativity involving the expression of profound human truth.

The latter exists in roughly equal measure in Josquin, Tallis, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Handel and Bach, Haydn and Mozart, Schubert and Berlioz, Verdi and Wagner, Bruckner and Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Strauss, Debussy…

Inkinen’s input could be heard in the careful energy that he projects, civilised by discretion and precision, but given dramatic character by the vivid dynamic shifts, readiness to allow flexible rhythms and to make arresting changes of tempo.  The slow movement, in triple time, opens with attentive fugal treatment of the unpretentious theme and it’s a sudden pianissimo that enlivens it. The Menuetto, indicated ‘allegro molto e vivace’ seems like a contradiction: it must be one of the fastest ever – I’d hate to try dancing to it; it’s really a scherzo in disguise.

The true heart of the symphony is the last movement, starting with the repeated, playful attempts to play a scale; here Inkinen gave the orchestra licence to burst the seams, very fast, employing quite simple material adventurously and without too much attention to orchestral proprieties.

The second symphony, in D, set alongside the first, reveals a confidence and discursiveness in the longish Adagio introduction which seems to merge more organically into the Allegro.

The performance seemed to relish the chances to disappear into pianissimi occasionally, suddenly to burst out afresh. There are repeated conversations between strings and winds – clarinet, then bassoon, flute, horn… Here, and often in this and in the Eroica, Inkinen seemed to cherish beautifully executed wind playing. And in the Scherzo, one felt a scarcely contained impulse to flippancy. But it’s the finale where it was possible to sense the emergence of a more versatile and dynamic composer, the music taken at some speed almost as if pushing players beyond their limit.

There seemed a much shorter distance between No 2 and the great Eroica than is suggested by many commentators.

Two commanding chords take the place of the Adagios that introduced the two earlier symphonies. I might have hoped for a slightly more fearsome impact but these were a good enough announcement of a composer for a revolutionary era.

You could have argued that the full-sized orchestra used in Nos 1 and 2 was larger than is kosher for essentially classical works (strings were 16, 14, 12, 10, 8), but the numbers were right for the Eroica.  Though scored for three horns, compared with two for Nos 1 and 2, we had four offering more flexibility; otherwise the orchestra was of the same size.

Here, as in the earlier pair, Inkinen’s stamp consisted, rather than through any radical interpretative revelations, in paying striking attention to dynamic and tempo markings which were sufficient to hold the audience in a semblance of trance throughout. For example the emphatic, thudding wind accompaniment to the lyrical strings; but more than anything, there was constant delight in the many solo wind phrases or passages from flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and of course horns and trumpets. Though this orchestra’s strings are incomparable, it’s the clarity and beauty of the winds (horns have recovered their form) that lends any performance special piquancy, and these are all available.

No Eroica can survive without a Marche funèbre (again, nearly 20minutes long like the first movement) that is masterly and profound. This performance had weight from the great body of cellos and basses, as well as transparency, emotional impact, slow, treading tempi and a knack of subsiding into anguished pianissimi from which it seemed almost impossible to recover.

The justification for four horns became clear in the Scherzo: joyous, sanguine, life-affirming, and then the Finale filled the auditorium with energy, achieved through fugal writing, high-lighted by sudden breaks, sustaining an expectancy and excitement that built to the grandeur and triumph of the Coda. That, I am loath to confess, sounded just a little less thrilling than my hopes had been (certain performances, early in life, sometimes raise expectations that are impossible to erase). Nevertheless, in all, this first concert exceeded reasonable hopes, and confirmed both the orchestra’s excellence and the conductor’s vision, sense of structure and his awareness of the importance of refinement and detailing, not to mention pure excitement.

The next three evenings are bound to be among the year’s most memorable.




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