Two sides of a genius – Beethoven’s Eighth and Ninth Symphonies from Edo de Waart and the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
JOY – Beethoven’s Eighth and Ninth Symphonies

BEETHOVEN FESTIVAL – Symphonies 8 in F Major Op.93* and 9 in D Minor Op.125 “Choral”

Sabina Cvilak (soprano) / Kristin Darragh (m-soprano)
Oliver Johnston (tenor) / Anthony Robin Schneider (bass)
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra*
Edo de Waart (conductor)*

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 31st August, 2019

This, the final concert in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival, presented two symphonic works at what seemed like opposite ends of everything – black-versus-white parameters of style from a composer of genius. Beethoven in his Eighth Symphony appears to be “playing” with the form, parodying the classical symphony, satirising fashions and fads, heightening and debunking all kinds of gesturings and yet still producing a forward-moving, radically original work of art. On the other hand, the Ninth Symphony seems, from its very beginning, to put the listener in touch with a kind of basic life-force that finds its full expression in Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” with orchestral sounds inviting the use of words as an aid to symphonic expression for the first time in the form’s history.

It can be seen from these descriptions that the two works have practically nothing in common except their composer’s name and the degree of freedom and innovation employed in the music’s being. To thus present them in the same concert would ensure a musical feast of uniquely diverting, and, for some, even bewildering, variety. However, as with almost all of this composer’s work these pieces can survive practically any kind of treatment involving musical intent – so we were guaranteed a fully absorbing and thought-provoking evening’s listening!

I’d already heard and enjoyed these musicians’ traversals of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies two evenings previously, remarking in my review that the intensities of music-making seemed to gather and coalesce more purposefully as the evening progressed, finally bursting fully-forth in a performance of the Fifth Symphony’s finale that brought the house down. Here, the same kind of pattern somewhat uncannily emerged, with the great “Choral Symphony’s finale, the “Ode to Joy” releasing such surges of energy as had merely been hinted at throughout the music-making earlier in the evening. It was as if everything had been almost “tailored” for maximum effect towards that final movement, and specifically focusing on the entry of the voices with their message for all humankind!

In theory this approach eminently suited the evening’s musical journey, with the opening Eighth Symphony’s elegance and fluidity emphasised by Edo de Waart’s meticulous approach, a quirky detailing or three thrown in for good measure – while the Ninth Symphony which followed grew its mighty concluding oak-like girth from acorn-beginnings, the intended space of the whole work “suggested” by the first movement’s purposeful gesturings and the scherzo’s energies, except that the actual “substance” came with those voices and the instrumental support they received. As an intellectual construct the scheme was eminently satisfying, though I confess to missing the excitements of a more “visceral” approach in the playing –  I do like things even quirkier in the Eighth, and more epic and rugged in the Ninth’s first two movements …. but, chacun à son gout…..

By contrast with Thursday evening’s attendance at the MFC, which featured a noticeable number of empty seats, tonight’s house was packed full – and my Middle C colleague Lindis Taylor reported a similarly pleasing state of things for Friday’s performances of Nos. Six and Seven. I wondered whether the orchestra might have been better advised to split the four concerts over two weekends or even a fortnight, in the interests of affordability or accessibility –  still, no doubt it was something of an achievement to get the levels of attendance that it did over four consecutive nights of concerts!

So, we began with the Eighth Symphony – but not before we were told – at once poignantly, and heart-warmingly – that tonight’s gig was the cellist Roger Brown’s last concert with the NZSO after 20 years in the orchestral ranks, which occasioned affectionate and appreciative audience applause. Then we were off, Maestro de Waart and his players flinging the opening phrase across the expectant vistas with purposeful energy, everything clear, precise and well-chiselled, the timpani direct and sonorous. A demure, precisely-groomed second subject provided the contrast, while the development set about stocking up the argument with richly-varied textures, building things so very beautifully towards a splendidly forceful full-orchestra statement. The horns having then shown us what nobility of tone and timing they were capable of, the music stuttered to a somewhat quizzical conclusion!

Then came what sounded like a taste of the “new” (Beethoven perhaps inspired by the newly-invented metronome of his friend Johann Maelzel) with an Allegretto scherzando second movement that seemed to pay homage to the “mechanical” of invention and regularity, the music, however, spectacularly “misbehaving” at the end and breaking free of such constraints with gleeful gesturings! I was diverted by this, but thoroughly enjoyed the “old” which then followed, a Tempo di Menuetto, played with delicious “old-world” languour, and featuring a trio in which the double basses literally “stole the show” with their ear-grabbing accented accompaniments of the winds!

What elfin scamperings there were at the finale’s beginning, followed by a truly off-the wall summons to unbuttoned hi-jinks! A contemporary English review of this work commented that “Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony depends wholly on its last movement for what applause it obtains; the rest is eccentric without being amusing, and laborious without effect.” More balanced was the view of Sir George Grove, who described it as full of “those mixtures of tragedy and comedy….which make (Beethoven’s) music so true a mirror of human life….equal to the great plays of Shakespeare….for the same reasons.” Inclined to whatever view, the listener is nevertheless carried along by the sheer energy of it all – de Waart didn’t overplay either comedy or drama, letting the finely-controlled orchestral playing allow us to make of the music what we wanted!

And suddenly (well, after the interval) we were faced with another work, one whose sounds seemed to mirror a different dimension of awareness, a new awakening to the world! So very hushed was the opening (the strings at first seeming more like slivers of light than sound), that the opening crescendo was suddenly upon us, muscular and thrustful rather than monumental and titanic – a mode that seemed to me to dominate de Waart’s interpretation of the instrumental parts of the work. While not straitjacketed, the lines were kept tensile throughout, with the timpani prominent, though more dramatic and whiplash than rugged and epic. There was no rhetoric – the mid-movement cataclysm, for example, almost took us by surprise with its suddenness, the timpani splendidly impactful, the strings and winds giving it all they had, the brass grimly hanging on to their reiterated single note – and then the crisis was passed, and the great river of music flowed onwards.

I thought the scherzo splendidly launched, with the timpani again focused and incisive – as the strands of impulse bonded together and danced along, the music took on an almost bucolic feeling, the energies good-humoured rather than incisive and grimly-focused, the mood further celebrated by the repeats. The Trio section thrust its way into the music’s trajectories, the wind-playing a joy, the horns lovely, the oboe solo delectably-phrased, and the strings judging their crescendi to perfection. Was the scherzo’s return slightly more sharp-edged, more urgent? – perhaps I’d gotten used to the music’s bucolic mood by then…..

The slow movement’s opening phrases moved swiftly and lightly, in accord with what we’d already heard, the impulses fluent and air-borne rather than time-arresting, the strings leading things forward to what’s always seemed to me to be the music’s “inner sanctum”, here the repose had a quality more “on the wing” than one holding time in thrall. But the playing was divine, winds and horn fervently communing, and stimulating a surge, a flow of energy, whose accompaniment even had a “swing” to it! I did want more sense of “leading up” to something with those brass shouts, however – surely more of a “transformational moment” than we got, here? Other listeners will possibly disagree – but I was wanting to be “imbued” with some kind of great “feeling” at this point, and felt not a little perplexed and disappointed at its rapid passsing, which emotion persisted right to the movement’s end…….

No time for any further self-communings – the vocal soloists had by now taken the stage and something was definitely brewing! In crashed the finale, with its “horror chord” leading the way! I wasn’t aware of the performance “hanging fire” in any way, here, except that a couple of people said to me afterwards that “it (the finale) took a long time to get going!”. What I registered was the growing excitement of it all, the brusque dismissal of the work’s previous themes and the impulsive reaction to the first appearance of the “Joy” theme. The melody itself here resembled a “song of the earth” with those superb double-basses, then beautifully “forwarded” by the ‘cellos and violas with the bassoons, and flowering with the violins’ treatment, before the winds and brass rang it grandly out at the climax.

Again the “horror chord”, and its accompanying tumult! – but this time the bass soloist (Anthony Robin Schneider) demanded our attention, with his “O Freunde, nicht diese töne!” – and the whole performance took wing, soloists and choir scaling the heights of physical impact and emotion and inviting the players and their conductor to join them, and spread the “joy” among their enraptured audience. I particularly enjoyed the work of both Schneider and mezzo, Kristin Darragh, and thought the work of the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir was overwhelming! Here we got the full, transcendental force of the music’s reaching out for the stars at “Über Sternen muß er wohnen”, and the full-blooded vigour of both voices and instruments in the fugal “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” – the work’s range and scope realised in this all-embracing panoply of creative and recreative human energy!

Has it all defined an orchestra and its conductor? Sergei Rachmaninov, asked once why he didn’t play more Beethoven Piano Sonatas, said, characteristically, “The Beethoven Sonatas contain everything – and no one pianist can play everything!” True, in a sense, but how one wishes that he HAD played and recorded them all, nevertheless! And how instructive in so many ways when performing artists, faced with a totality of creative achievement, attempt to realise something of that totality, as here! Very, very great honour to Edo de Waart and his splendid band of musicians for enabling so many of us to make all or even part of that precious journey with them so resplendently.


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