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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

 

The London Philharmonic Orchestra in Athens: Beethoven Cycle, Soloists, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Kurt Masur, Megaron, Athens, 12th to 15th January 2005 (ARi)


Ludwig van Beethoven:
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 (1800)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36 (1802)
Symphony No. 3 "Eroica" in E Flat Major, Op. 55 (1803)
12th January 2005


Symphony No. 4 in B Flat Major, Op. 60 (1806)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1807)
13th January 2005


Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral" in F Major, Op. 68 (1808)
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 (1812)
14th January 2005


Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93 (1812)
Symphony No. 9 "Choral" in D minor, Op. 125 (1824)
Christine Brewer (soprano)
Carolin Masur (mezzo soprano)
Thomas Studebaker (tenor)
Alastair Miles (bass)
London Philharmonic Choir
Manolis Kalomiris” Children Choir
15th January 2005


After an unsuccessful attempt to present the complete Beethoven symphonies in Athens two years ago, and after the very good Brahms cycle of last year, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Kurt Masur offered the Athens audience Beethoven’s symphonic legacy in four sold-out concerts.

 


In the opening movement of the First Symphony the orchestra’s reading was elegant but Masur’s approach, despite the very fast tempi, failed to convey the overall feeling of gaiety and happiness. The same was also true of the third movement, except perhaps for a very successful dialogue between the winds and strings in the Trio. The final movement was the most successful of all with beautiful phrasing from the second violins.


The Second Symphony’s slow introduction brought with it gentle statements from the winds and the main theme of the allegro con brio section underlined beautifully the energetic and cheerful character of the music. The lyrical theme of the second movement had grace, lightness and exceptionally well-phrased statements from the horns and bassoon. After an indifferent scherzo, a perfect, thunderous rondo followed, its impressive first theme performed furiously, as it should be. Clarinet and bassoon introduced lyrically the second theme, and this was well contrasted with the explosive repeat of the first theme.


The introductory first two chords of the Eroica were played in tempo and with weighty significance; but the main theme simply lacked heroic tension. I have never understood how - and why - certain conductors appear so restrained here, as if they are not overwhelmed by this stormy music. The orchestra’s playing was largely without contrast, and this was especially so when the second theme emerged from the winds to be taken up by the first violins. The recapitulation featured very good playing by the horns, however. The Funeral March was understated and the crescendo not sufficiently weighty. The third movement was very well articulated but the winds solos were quite often approximate; pizzicati in the finale’s introductory theme were impressively accurate. However, this was a performance which gave little, or no, opportunity to experience the score’s triumphant character.


The joyfulness of the Fourth Symphony’s introductory movement did not emerge in Masur’s reading, which appeared stiff and lacked a bel canto quality. However, the flute was exceptionally fine and the string attacks well rehearsed. The slow movement enraptured the audience immediately; it remained totally silent throughout its duration. Both orchestra and maestro were incredibly concentrated and offered us moments of pure emotion and tenderness. The Scherzo was played satisfactorily but without any contrasting effects between the minuet and trio. The finale lacked the enthusiastic treatment I prefer in this work.

The Fifth Symphony’s first movement received a fabulous, straight-forward reading full of genuine passion and fire; miraculously, Masur left the orchestra time and space to breathe. The serenity of the following movement was happily interrupted by a powerful, and elaborately phrased crescendi. The scherzo was introduced by dark and warm celli leading to a quite impressive performance of the fugato Trio section. The transition to the final movement was in the spirit of Masur’s overall conception of this particular work, avoiding the rallentandi very often used (and misused) by others in this section - although I was tempted to prefer a little more suspense. The final movement was full of character, brio, grandeur and orchestral precision; a real delight for the mind and the heart and the peak of the cycle so far.


The third day opened with the Pastoral. The introductory movement was played in an ideal tempo, and both orchestra and conductor stated the popular themes nicely with great playing from the strings. The second movement advanced steadily and in an unaltered tempo until the end, with beautiful contributions from the wind soloists. The horns sounded a little too loud in the third movement but had a charming and warm tone. The tempest burst naturally - but not wildly – with Masur preferring to let the music to speak for itself. The finale, unfortunately, was rather cold and indifferent; if only the orchestra’s strings and admirable woodwinds hade been allowed more involvement!


The poco sostenuto introduction to the Seventh Symphony should have been more involved and sustained in order to contrast with the flute solo (played without grace) in the exposition of the principal theme of the movement’s main body. But these were the only unwelcome aspects of Masur’s interpretation and the orchestra’s performance; it emerged into an unforgettable experience. Incredible tutti were sung and danced in lively tempi, bringing us into a world of total happiness and joy. In contrast, the ritual dances of the second movement were very strict rhythmically and were supported by an orchestra in exstasis. The scherzo was performed brilliantly, respecting the presto indication set by the composer, and if the Trio was on the fast side it was notable for a great contribution from trumpets playing to their limits. Almost without a break - and without any sign of fatigue - the orchestra released their rich reserves and offered us a fast and generous conclusion to this symphony. A technically impressive and exhilarating account that will linger long in the memory.

 

The Eighth symphony, which opened the last day of this cycle (preceded by a welcome greeting in Greek from Kurt Masur to Mikis Theodorakis who was present in the hall), seemed to be less well rehearsed than the others since quite often we encountered unclear sonorities and weak balances. Nevertheless, the second movement was noble and gentle, and masterly constructed and executed. The third movement suffered from some orchestral inaccuracies and it was unfortunate that the horns sounded insecure. The final movement succeeded only due to the strings’ impeccable playing.


The first measures of the Ninth defined the grandeur of the performance. Lively tempi, together with a sense of understanding of the movement’s complex inner architecture, gave this movement the epic character it deserves. The sharp fortissimo beats that introduced the second movement, together with the impulse and power that governed the scherzo, convinced me that his Ninth would be the best I had ever experienced in a concert. The slow movement was notable for disarming phrasing and simplicity. The second violins and violas could not have underlined any better the serenity of the divine second theme, this masterpiece’s humanitarian message being clearly conveyed to the audience. I think Masur managed to find the golden rule between the late romantic and historically informed approaches. Without metaphysical demonstration, the orchestra stated dramatically the “fanfare of terror” and expressed perfectly all the movement’s different moods until the first statement of the main theme, “Ode to Joy” on the woodwinds. The quartet of soloists had a rare homogeneity, which was immediately noticeable. Together with the incredibly accurate Choir we lived moments of grace, inspiration and happiness. The audience honored this important event with long ovations and as the Maestro told me backstage he wishes to come back next year with a Schumann cycle.

 

Alexandros Rigas

 



 

 

 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)