The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
DESTINY – Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies
BEETHOVEN FESTIVAL – Symphonies 4 in B-flat Op.60 and 5 in C Minor Op.67
Edo de Waart (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Thursday, 29th August 2019
My Middle C colleague Lindis Taylor having reviewed the opening night of this momentous occasion (one would expect that performing the complete Beethoven Symphonies would be something of a milestone for any orchestra that takes itself and its “craft” seriously), it was my “turn” with the following two works of the canon. This was in no way tied to any preference for any particular work on the part of either of us – I could just as happily have reviewed the first three symphonies, as Lindis could have the following two. I simply happened to have a friend who wanted desperately to go with me to hear the Fifth Symphony – and so the arrangement was duly made. Of course, each of the “Nine” of Beethoven has a kind of distinction which at once singles it out from its fellows and binds it to what has gone before and comes after, so in a sense, wherever one “dips into” the canon of these works one comes up with fascinating ponderables, delights and revelations!
Robert Schumann, ever the one to “poeticise” a creative impulse, statement or finished work of art whether his own or another’s, declared that Beethoven’s “Fourth” Symphony, standing as it did between the mighty “Eroica” and the cataclysmic “Fifth” resembled “a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants”. In a sense, Beethoven almost HAD to write something that contrasted with such a world as brought into being by his previous symphony, though in its own way, the Fourth continued the composer’s exploration of symphonic possibilities very much in line with each of its predecessors – Schumann’s delightful characterisation of the work serves more as a starting-point for our senses than an out-and-out appraisal of the music’s merits.
Having said that, artistic endeavour has an endearing habit of attracting many colourful and telling responses bent on conveying an “essence” or a “character” belonging to a work – I’ve always enjoyed, for example, a potent description I came across somewhere of the hushed, shadowy and sombre effect of the Fourth’s opening measures – almost forty bars in length – as “4 am”, and find myself, while listening to most performances, conjuring up in my minds’ eye suitably dark, desolate and unpeopled vistas! Then, with the Fifth Symphony, there’s novelist EM Forster’s famous response of one of his characters in the book “Howard’s End”, to the “ghostly” parts of that work’s Scherzo, equating the music with the footsteps of “a goblin walking quietly over the universe from end to end…” and followed by others, “phantoms of cowardice and disbelief” – until the composer appears and scatters them with “vast roarings of a superhuman joy”.
I’d been told that all seats for the last concert in the Beethoven series, one featuring the “Choral” Symphony, and paired with the Eighth, had been sold – so I was surprised (as my colleague had been the previous night) to find the occasional whole row in the MFC galleries empty as well as spaces dotted around the stalls – I would have thought that the Fifth Symphony concert, as much as that for the Ninth, would have been a real drawcard. My friend and I were sympathetic when a couple of people at the interval who were sitting alongside us turned and asked us which Symphony it was that we had just heard – but somewhat perplexed when they then asked us what it was that was coming next (were we REALLY in a concert hall in Wellington?)
The music, for the moment, crowded out extraneous thought, as the concert began – with a dark and mysterious B-flat chord whose development took our sensibilities to realms entirely removed from anything found in the aforementioned first three symphonies. Conductor de Waart kept the pulses ticking over throughout, eschewing the “stillness” of many a more romantically-conceived realisation I’d previously heard, with the focus firmly propelled towards the great outburst that launched the allegro, the orchestral playing alert and urgent, with timpani prominent, and wind and brass bolstering the string lines. A delectable “plunge” into the repeat enhanced our pleasure enormously, while the development brought to us those mysterious re-explorings of the opening, underpinned by the timpani, whose crescendo excitingly returned us to the energies of the allegro’s reprise.
Though de Waart’s purposeful way with the slow movement made something of a literal, almost “ungiving” impression with the opening figures, his players brought out the music’s lyricism, the wind-playing in all its forms a dream to experience! Particularly telling was the “vista of loneliness” generated by the solo clarinet, followed by the most heart-warming passage of birdsong from the flute, the contrasts between the two so breathtakingly characterised! After this the syncopated rhythms of the Scherzo set rumbustious accents against winsome lines, the two characters here deliciously “playing” with one another – then, each of the “Trio” sections were like balm for the senses after the hustle and bustle, the horns finally capping off the energies with a round-up call!
De Waart would have been particularly pleased with his players’ efforts throughout the finale – the players achieved a thrilling synthesis of strength and style throughout with some “star turns” where appropriate, such as the various winds’ helter-skelter renditions of the opening figure – the bassoon’s jaunty manner was an absolute delight! I liked also the great “hammerings at the door” which grew out of the molto perpetuo rhythms in places, and the double basses’ almost nonchalant rumblings as they demonstrated that they were up with the play as well!
So, after such disciplined and tightly-woven music-making, what was in store for us with the genre-defining Fifth Symphony? At the outset, de Waart seemed to emphasise the music’s severity and line, rather than any rhetoric and theatricality, the opening “integrated” into the urgency of the whole, with none of the sounds “held” for effect, but quickly moved onto the next phrase. At the development, the horn utterance remained part of the on-going argument rather than presented as an imperious statement, as was the return of the “Fate” theme – emphatic, but remaining “in tempo”, the oboe allowed the merest bit of give for its solo. However. with the string/wind/brass exchanges towards the end, we realised that the music’s tensions had been steadily building throughout, as the groups seemed, suddenly, to begin “fronting up” to one another, with the horns particularly vehement-sounding – most exciting!
The players launched the second movement quickly and eagerly, the great brass shouts at the phrase ends magnificently underpinned by the double-basses with tremendous thrust! The playing had such concentration, such focus, it sounded as if the musicians were “discovering” the music phrase-by-phrase as it went along, with nothing routine or pre-conceived – I felt an air of engagement throughout, not from any great over-emphasis, but from a sense of purpose, resulting in as many rapt and contemplative moments as there were stirring ones. The scherzo continued this process, so that the horns didn’t balefully blare their great repeated-note opening, but integrated it with the music’s overall movement, leading nicely to the double-basses’ great flexing of corporate muscle, echoed by the bassoons and the rest of the band, anxious to join in with the fun!
Then, of course, came the aforementioned “goblins walking across the world” section, here suitably angular and grotesque, the atmosphere suitably “charged” with mysterious expectation, the timpani eventually taking over from the winds and strings, the sounds magnificently held in check until the firmament was rent by the music’s unstoppable surge into C major, the brass finally allowed to roar out their music, and the rest of the orchestra conflagrated by the sheer energy of it all. De Waart’s control enabled everything to “speak”, but encouraged an on-going vitality, incorporating the spooky return of the scherzo’s “goblins” and the composer’s “vast roarings” putting the latter to flight once and for all, the strings singing out in tandem with the bassoon, piccolo and flute, and the music’s surging towards a communal joyousness at the end – the concert as a whole a true “darkness-to-light” journey of the human spirit, and a privilege to witness. Those many people who leapt to their feet at the C Minor symphony’s end in the Michael Fowler Centre in appreciation of what they had heard obviously thought so too!