In the marvellous heartland of Beethoven’s symphonies: concert No 3

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen

Beethoven: Symphonies No 6 (Pastoral) and 7 in F and A, respectively

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 14 June, 6:30 pm

On Friday, after posting my Thursday review, I was reminded that this was not the first Beethoven cycle that the NZSO has undertaken – a fact that I should have remembered for I reviewed them for The Evening Post, in November 1995.  Then, the symphonies, conducted in the Town Hall (give it back to us!) by Janos Fürst who died in 2007, were spread over five concerts over three weeks, from 1 to 18 November; the performance of the Pastoral was accompanied by the 5th (Emperor) Piano Concerto, with Michael Houstoun, and the other pairings were: 2 and 3, 4 and 5, 7 and 8, 1 and 9.

On Saturday evening we heard the 6th and 7th symphonies. The dynamics were rather different from the first two concerts: the Pastoral is the second longest of them; it is a departure from the normal classical four movements, has a pictorial programme, and is one of the most loved of them all. Though the evening was becoming cloudy, the sun shone in the Michael Fowler Centre and the air danced.

Sitting centre stalls, one hears things in perfect balance and the large orchestra delivered a sound that was opulent, clear and balanced both spatially and between sections. As in the earlier performances one’s ears became attuned particularly to the ten cellos and eight basses, as large and as beautifully played as in the most famous orchestras: bass weight and sonority are fundamental to an emotionally satisfying performance.

This lent the first movement, ‘cheerful feelings aroused on arriving in the countryside’, glowing warmth and colour, the colour mainly from the woodwinds and horns, though they tended to be a bit covered by the strings, the writing for which must be held partly to blame.

The second movement, a ‘scene by the brook’, is slower but the playing was no less resolute, holding the attention in the gentle embrace of a languid summer’s day. Inkinen’s guiding of the third movement was characterized not only by playing that portrayed an unsophisticated gaiety, a sort of rhythmic stiffness, but also in playing that was, at one point presumably deliberate, a little wayward in articulation, simulating amateurs. Though I could see little of the wind players, I did glimpse Peter Dykes playing the lovely oboe solo here.

The storm was most effective with a sudden calm and a shocking return of the thunder which leads to the rapturous finale, cellos seeming to lead the choir in singing a sort of hymn of thanksgiving to end a wonderfully varied and beautiful performance.

The seventh symphony, after the astonishment and excitement of its discovery when I was about 19, has not really held its place in my heart. It has its moments, such as the inviting though remarkably long introductory passages, but there has always seemed to me too much unadorned thematic repetition, too little plain beauty. The exception is the slow movement, merely an allegretto, but which is a refuge for a few minutes with a heart-warming melody; it was performed here with sufficient rhythmic flexibility to overcome the constant pulse that, to me, imposes a shade too much rhythm to perform the role of bringer of repose in the midst of wildness and ecstasy.

The symphony, nevertheless, makes big demands on an orchestra, and Inkinen took every advantage of abrupt dynamic changes, of opportunities for grand or exciting tuttis, long stretches of molto vivace figures and passage-work, to showcase solos, such as the frequent ethereal or sparkling flute passages from Bridget Douglas.

I suppose it is the third movement, Scherzo in all but name, that seems to repeat once too often.

The Finale which is marked as a modest Allegro con brio – not Molto allegro or Prestissimo, or some such – is usually played as fast as possible and was here. Merely very fast doesn’t work, and I think this performance verged on using speed rather than intensity and emotional integrity as its driver. Nevertheless, Inkinen set the audience by the ears as he changed gears, aborting a third repeat of the Presto. The compulsive theme that Weber thought proof of Beethoven’s madness took hold of the auditorium and there was a sense of mesmerized astonishment as it drove forward with a sustained momentum to a climactic ending.

There was shouting and long applause and many of the audience came to their feet (though not as many as those who stood at the end of No 5 the night before) through a sense of exhilaration as the music seems to express some kind of triumph shared by all mankind, foreshadowing the mood of the Choral Symphony we are to hear on Sunday afternoon.


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