Compelling, relentless performances of Beethoven’s sixth and seventh symphonies continue the NZSO’s festival

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart

Beethoven Festival: Symphonies Nos 6 in F, Op 68 “Pastoral” and 7 in A, Op 92

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 30 August, 7:30 pm

When I looked around at the audience at the third of the Beethoven concerts and saw that every last seat was occupied, right to the far sides of the stalls, I felt I needed to retract my post-script remark about Wednesday’s audience, which was indeed not very large. I needed to consider that there were probably many who couldn’t afford all four and had to make a hard decision – which two or three would be most exciting?  And with works in all four programmes that were unmissable, many opted to sacrifice the early ones in the belief that they were, naturally, less great. While that’s not true, the notion that it might be was enough.

Another introductory comment: my earlier review of the first three symphonies mentioned earlier performances under De Waart; I listed 1, 3 and 7, forgetting the Choral which was played, with two of the same soloists, last November (it was reviewed here by Rosemary Collier).

The Pastoral Symphony
I don’t know why I was unexpectedly delighted, and surprised, as the orchestra launched with such spirit and enthusiasm into No 6. There’s no preparatory introduction to warm up or to allow the audience to settle down via an  Adagio molto, or a Poco sostenuto. We have arrived at once ‘auf dem Lande’ (Beethoven broke tradition at once by using German movement names; and it left no doubt that Beethoven was composing what was the first ‘programme’ symphony in any real sense – music that overtly paints a picture or tells a story).

Beethoven’s mood is felt throughout the auditorium from the very first phrase, and the orchestra left us in no doubt, with every section sounding full of the delight that Beethoven had created in his score. While flute and oboe were conspicuous early, all woodwinds had their place in the sun, playing as if they rejoiced in the pleasure they were bringing to surrounding peasants (a situation more conspicuous in the third movement, of course).

The second movement – the scene by the brook – was also at an above-average speed, even though the pleasure depicted here is more passive. Bridget Douglas ‘s bird-like flute was again prominent along with bassoon (Robert Weeks), clarinet (Patrick Barry) and Robert Orr’s oboe, all played much more distinctive roles than their usual job of being modestly integrated in the entire orchestral fabric. All produced sounds of the most pure and open quality. Their apotheosis was the later cuckoo imitation.

And though the third movement opened with warm, energised strings which pervaded it, keeping the almost transcendent joyousness well grounded; the  important role of the woodwinds, as well as horns, flowed through it.

The memorable element in the storm scene of the fourth movement was the startling, even frightening intensity of the Laurence Reese’s timpani.

If I’d imagined that the performance might have exhausted the possibility of even more beautiful music, the utterly rapturous last movement which combines a shepherd’s song with the composer’s ‘joyous and grateful feelings nach dem Sturm’, there was a quality about the playing that risked inducing tears of joy.

I had not really expected to be so moved by the performance of a symphony which one knew so intimately; however, I was somewhat (read: considerably) undone.

The Seventh Symphony
The first thing noticed about the orchestra’s constitution for the A major symphony was the space to the right of the trumpets, previously occupied by trombones, now vacant. It did not indicate any retreat into the 18th century.

Though No 7 is generally considered one of the dramatic, even heroic, odd-numbered symphonies, that’s not how it opens. A firm, emphatic chord is followed by steady but calm woodwind phrases lasting three or four minutes before the infectious and, in this performance, joyous dance tunes, Vivace, take over, with those growling string accompaniments satisfyingly prominent.  It’s long, near a quarter hour, and the pulse didn’t falter.

The orchestra opened the Allegretto (second movement), with its subdued lower strings creating an almost secretive atmosphere; in fact the entry of the first violins is unusually delayed, and in the key of A minor now, it created a certain air of expectancy, perhaps tension, that held the audience in an uncanny calm.

The third movement is named ‘Presto’, not Scherzo, but that’s what it is, in Rondo form, and De Waart launched into very fast. Even with the alternating, slower ‘trio’ section (meno presto assai) it remained driven by the same relentless energy, delivering repeat after repeat to the point of….well, hypnosis…. I have sometimes found it one repeat too many, but not this time; it was totally arresting.

At the end of the Presto, I sometimes sense disbelief that that last movement can deliver excitement more intense than the first three movements. De Waart allowed no pause to the fast, shocking start of the Allegro con brio, an instruction that sometimes seems rather an understatement. Here, ‘con fuoco’ or ‘con furia’ might have better described this performance, for a while at least. But there was something in his conducting that even hinted at acceleration, which would have been impossible given its current relentless pace.  And throughout all the compelling tumult, the orchestra was held together, hardly a blemish perceptible, sustained by the conductor’s unostentatious yet inspiring leadership.

Though the entire audience didn’t stand (Wellington audiences are extremely discriminating) the smaller numbers represented the entire house on its feet in many other places.


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