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Swansea Festival of the Arts (6) - Beethoven, Berlioz: Nelson Goerner (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thierry Fischer, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 13.10.2009 (NR)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major, op. 73, ‘Emperor’
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, op. 14

This concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, featured two monumental works and two strong, committed performances. The soloist in Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto was the Argentinian Nelson Goerner, a diminutive figure at the keyboard, but packing a fair punch, intelligent and secure. There is always a slight issue of balance in this work, as for all the grand flourishes and the atmosphere of heroic declamation, the piano actually spends long periods being as it were meditatively absorbed into the orchestra rather than standing against it in dialogue or challenge. I felt this was well managed, apart from one or two small timing lapses. Goerner found some beautiful phrasing in the Adagio, and brought out a tragic, almost Mozartian element often submerged by more heavy-handed performances. There was also a finely-negotiated transition to the finale, with its wonderful trampoline leaps into something brighter and more ample. It’s moving to remember how while he was composing this Beethoven’s already advanced deafness was under further pressure from the noise of French cannon at the siege of Vienna. Trapped in the city, he produced a work that seems both to sum up the entire Viennese tradition and to begin to transcend it – and Thierry Fischer made a convincing job of sustaining classical proportion while allowing the music to suggest new horizons.

Only twenty years later we have very new horizons, with the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz, Beethoven-influenced, but really an apotheosis of adolescent turmoil. It’s a spectacular, melodramatic work, as everyone knows, an impressive mixture of the sublime and the sublimely silly, and a writer like Dickens would have responded powerfully to the kind of imagination at work in it, its populist drive and its violent urban-rural contrasts: Berlioz composed it while striding all night around the streets of Paris, as Dickens was to do 16 years later in the throes of Dombey and Son. I suspect it’s also true that beneath the extraordinary avant-garde experimentation, the strange combinations of instruments (tubular bells and a pair of ophicleides at one point, tubas nowadays), the clashes of mood, the hectic outbursts, the scratching strings as the severed head rolls into the basket, there are intermittent suggestions of where Rossini might have gone had the mood taken him. Berlioz himself thought of the work as an opera without words, and Fischer and his grand forces were fully alert to this. The members of the orchestra obviously loved the chance to really exhaust themselves. I have to mention the superb woodwind playing throughout the concert, not just at the opening of the pastoral third movement, where the oboe managed to suggest both a dawn-misted shepherd’s field and something altogether creepier and more haunted.

Neil Reeve

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