Rewarding start to the NZSO’s Beethoven Festival from Edo de Waart

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart

Beethoven Festival: Symphonies 1 in C, 2 in D and 3 in E flat, ‘Eroica’

Michael Fowler Centre

Wednesday 28 August, 7:30 pm

While under Edo de Waart’s musical direction the NZSO has performed several Beethoven symphonies (I recall only 1, 3 and 7) the last complete cycle was a valedictory series (well, his penultimate year) by Pietari Inkinen in 2014. And De Waart is following the same, strictly chronological order, with the first concert devoted to Nos 1, 2 and 3.

Looking back at what I wrote about the first Inkinen concert, I find I’m making a similar and, I suppose, not uncommon observation that there is not the sort of marked difference between Nos 2 and 3 than is sometimes believed to exist. De Waart signalled that in the incremental enlargement of the orchestra between each of the three. No 1 used two horns and strings numbering from 10 down to three basses; in No 2 there were three horns, 12 first violins and four basses, while the Eroica employed four horns, 14 first violins, descending to six basses.

No 1 in C major
The C major symphony opened in a sort of secretive manner that was immediately captivating, strings and winds sounding separately quite a lot but always with a beautiful feeling of carefully balanced ensemble. Beethoven’s scoring and the smaller orchestra allowed individual instruments to emerge clearly.

There’s slightly more Haydn than Mozart audible in  the first symphony but it’s not fruitful to dwell on the composer’s predecessors, for you don’t have to be very perceptive to hear already what can only be Beethoven’s voice, a melodic individuality and a way of handling the shapes of phrases.

Like many of Haydn’s London symphonies, its slow movement, Andante cantabile con moto, is in triple time, and its performance enhanced its gentle character, its minuet-like character which sounds, in some ways more like a minuet than the third movement itself. The Menuetto was Beethoven’s only named minuet movement; while, in the sprightly way De Waart took it, the Menuetto seemed to be striving to be a Scherzo.

I remember how, when I first heard the symphony in my teens, being captivated in the last movement, Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace, by the way Beethoven teased the listener with successive ‘attempts’ at the rising major scale, in G for the moment, rather than the home key of C. The touch of restrained wit seemed to be present throughout De Waart’s performance, and it seemed to draw attention to other games, such as the tossing of the theme back and forth between winds and strings.

No 2 in D major
Not only does each successive symphony grow in length and instrumentation, but also in melodic and formal complexity. For my ears, there’s as much evolution and elaboration between 1 and 2 as between 2 and 3. And De Waart created a mood in the first movement in which the D major key sounded very much more mature and meditative that its predecessor, with its more elaborate orchestration and melodic development; all of which was spread out at a moderate speed – it lasted about 12 minutes; it commonly comes in at about 10. The sense of maturity and calm seriousness, dictated I suppose by the key of D, was consolidated by the Larghetto second movement which shifts to A major, confirming its emotional richness, compared with the first symphony.

After writing this I came across an anonymous quote from a contemporary (1804) review of the D major symphony which is in line with my own feeling about it:

“It is a noteworthy, colossal work, of a depth, power, and artistic knowledge like very few. It has a level of difficulty, both from the point of view of the composer and in regard to its performance by a large orchestra (which it certainly demands), quite certainly unlike any symphony that has ever been made known. It demands to be played again and yet again by even the most accomplished orchestra, until the astonishing number of original and sometimes very strangely arranged ideas becomes closely enough connected, rounded out, and emerges like a great unity, just as the composer had in mind.”

Commentators commonly remark on the synchronous appearance of Beethoven’s distressing Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 confessing his dismay and wretchedness at his increasing deafness, and I hear this in the symphony’s general mood.

While it’s labelled Scherzo, the third movement seems not to conform particularly to its meaning: ‘joke’ or ‘jest’. Thus it doesn’t suggest any great departure from the spirit of the rest of the symphony.  The last movement persists with the somewhat sombre mood of the other movements, and the orchestra continued to relish the greater sophistication and occasionally teasing seriousness of the movement.

The Eroica
And so, I really don’t share the common view that it’s really only with the Eroica, that the real Beethoven emerged. Its fame derives in part from its intended dedication to Napoleon and Beethoven’s shock when he crowned himself Emperor in 1804, scratching out the dedication. And there’s its grandeur, its greater length and the enlarged orchestra; and its surprising and unusual turns of tonality and orchestral texture. At least one writer has noted that Beethoven could in certain respects have modelled his E flat symphony on Mozart’s E flat symphony, No 39 (inter alia, its first movement in triple time, its second in duple time).

That writer argued his case, concluding: “Even from his earliest works like the Opus 1 Piano Trios, Opus 9 String Trios, opus 5 Cello Sonatas, and Opus 2 Piano Sonatas, Beethoven’s breadth of spiritual vision, his profundity of emotion, his sky-lifting wit and unconstrained audacity are fully developed.”

I don’t claim that there are aspects and elements of No 3 that exist in a mature shape in No 2; they are merely less conspicuous, not so fully formed, suggesting that these signs of genius are present and will soon emerge.

Its main claim to fame is the profoundly impressive Marcia funebre, its second movement, which introduced a powerfully expressive emotionalism of a kind not heard before. Here, Beethoven does, emphatically, transcend anything he’d written before; the challenge is to perform it in a way that reveals its genius without exaggerating the emotion. De Waart’s approach to it was through restraint and an elegiac spirit that was controlled and thoughtful with no hint of unrestrained or even suppressed grief.

The Scherzo, which Beethoven clearly uses as an injunction of ‘life goes on’, after its timid first bars, rang out as an expression of optimism and human delight, perhaps also in the natural world.

To have put the three symphonies in chronological order is at once an obvious and a revelatory approach; I only hope that the audience took away the same message that I did, that, apart from the Marcia funebre, the first two are not far behind the third.

De Waart’s taste and instinct for finding the middle ground, neither too reticent nor to flamboyant, led to performances that were temperate and assured, without vices. They left Beethoven’s voice and intelligence to be understood and heard without input from an egotistic intermediary.

While it’s reported that there’s a full house for the last concert, with Nos 8 and 9, the audience on Wednesday rather worried me. Though the gallery was reasonable well inhabited, the stalls looked little more than half occupied. And more empty seats appeared around me after the interval. Is Wellington…New Zealand…on an irreversible cultural decline as a new generation, less exposed to great music in school and in the general musical environment, is simply less broadly educated.


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