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Beethoven:  Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), Leah Marian Jones (mezzo), Geraint Dodd (tenor), David Soar (bass), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama Symphony Orchestra, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama College Chorus, Bristol Choral Society, Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 30.3.2009 (GPu)

Beethoven: Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125


For all that it was first performed when Beethoven was in his fifties and when he was beset by many difficulties and disillusionments, the ninth symphony always strikes me as astonishingly – and perpetually – youthful music. For all the work’s ambiguities and enigmas, its last movement’s idealistic affirmation of human potential, of brotherhood and of an all-loving deity has about it the passion of youth; so too does the inventiveness of some of the ways in which tradition is handled in the earlier movements. This is music with a continuing capacity to startle and disconcert, music that has a seeming waywardness that finally all makes sense. Its principles and its methods are, even now, not easily or definitively grasped. As such it is both a piece which seems particularly apt for young musicians and, equally, exceedingly difficult for them to bring off successfully. I cannot be alone in having attended one or two attempts at the piece by orchestras and conductors who found themselves not up to its measure – sometimes with more or less embarrassing results. There was not the slightest embarrassment in this performance, however, nor ever the slightest hint that there might be. The young musicians and singers of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama had benefited from extensive preparation by the College’s Conductor in Residence, David Jones, and the Chorus Master Adrian Partington. They had also had, I gather, two days of intensive rehearsal with Sir Charles Mackerras. The results were exhilaratingly impressive.

The concert was part of the College’s celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of its founding. It was established in 1949, as Cardiff College of Music; after a name change to the
Welsh College of Music & Drama, the additional title of ‘Royal’ was bestowed in 2002. Long part of the University of Wales, it has since 2007 been associated with the University of Glamorgan. It is, in effect, the National Conservatoire of Wales and has a distinguished list of alumni. The institution is very much looking to the future, rather than being content simply to celebrate its past achievements. Though it already has some good (if relatively small) facilties for performance and rehearsal, it has plans to add a 450 seat recital hall, a 160 seat theatre and some new drama rehearsal spaces; the fund-raising campaign for this development has as its patron Bryn Terfel, one of the College’s Fellows. The college recently made the news by taking delivery of no less than 62 Steinway pianos, thus becoming the first All-Steinway Conservatoire in the UK.

Sir Charles Mackerras is also a Fellow of the College and has clearly been generous in his support of the institution; in this particular concert the orchestra was led by the young Latvian violinist Ilze Kirsanova, recipient of the 2008 Sir Charles Mackerras Orchestral Leader Scholarship at the College. She and her young colleagues responded splendidly to the occasion, the music and the conductor. While it would be wrong and unreasonable to expect a student orchestra and choir to match the very highest standards of top professional forces, it must be stressed that there was nothing here than needed apology or excuse. This was a performance in which the full intensity of Beethoven’s music could be felt, in which its sheer excitement was communicated with a force of which professional orchestras have sometimes fallen short. Whether in the interplay of ambiguity and inexorability in the first movement, or in the extraordinary energies of the scherzo, at times cosmic in their scope, at times seeming almost to burlesque all human pretensions, or in the sublime pastoral of the trio; whether in the near stasis of the adagio which opens the third movement or in the greater fluency of the ensuing andante – everywhere the orchestra played with both precision and commitment, coping with some of Mackerras’s quicker tempos in impressive fashion. Perhaps that third movement didn’t quite have the contemplative profundity of some performances, but it would be a mean-spirited reviewer who would make an issue of the point. In the last movement, the choir and orchestra were remarkably exact and passionate in equal measure, not least in what Wagner called the ‘shriek of horror’ which opens it. The team of soloists made a healthy contribution (David Soar’s singing being particularly impressive) and Mackerras’s insightful conducting clarified the complex structure of the movement; the impact was properly powerful.

Only a few days before attending this performance I happened to be reading the words of the reviewer in The Harmonicon, published in London in 1825, written in response to the first English performance of the symphony given by the Royal Philharmonic Society in the previous month. His enthusiasm was, to put it mildly, rather limited:

“We find Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to be precisely one hour and five minutes long; a fearful period indeed, which puts the muscles and lungs of the band, and the patience of the audience to a severe trial”.

In Cardiff, in an April some 184 years later, the audience’s patience was certainly not put to the trial – attention was rapt throughout and the applause ecstatic. Nor did the muscles and lungs of the young musicians seem to have suffered unduly. Certainly they had enough energy left to applaud Sir Charles with great gusto and to whoop with delight at his final appearance on stage – the moment was a touching one, their demonstration of their evident affection and respect for ‘their’ conductor was a fitting end to an evening which celebrated an institution which makes a vital contribution to the cultural life of Wales and beyond.

Glyn Pursglove


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