Many points of pleasure

BEETHOVEN 1, 2 & 3

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 17, 2020


The observances across this year of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth are bound to be many and varied, yet I suspect that few will cause as much interest as this concentrated dose of the composer’s symphonic output.   Later in 2020, at various venues, members of the ACO will play the String Quintet in C minor, the Kreutzer Sonata arranged for string quintet (why?), all the cello sonatas, the Cavatina from the Op. 130 String Quartet arranged for string orchestra, the first movement of the Op. 18 C minor String Quartet in its original form, Movement 3 from the A minor String Quartet for string orchestra, and the Grosse Fuge  –  one of the ensemble’s calling cards.

To perform the first three symphonies, Richard Tognetti (celebrating 30 years at the artistic directorial helm of the ACO) and his 17 core musicians were joined by 14 extra strings, all members of the Australian National Academy of Music, and 13 wind players of mixed provenances, with the inevitable Brian Nixon on timpani.   An ad hoc combination, then, if one calculated to give us an aural experience in line with Beethoven’s own auditory experience, the string instruments using gut and the wind employing period instruments, ensuring that the orchestral families sounded balanced.   Fine in theory, except that these three performances were dominated by the first violins.  As it should be?  Perhaps.

Needless to say – but I will – the readings were exhilarating throughout each of the twelve movements, the musicians making the most of every opportunity, both written and unwritten, to highlight or underline dynamic contrasts and to confront the score with an energetic response at every turn.   Mind you, by this stage of the organization’s national tour, the ACO/ANAM/guests’ readings had reached a point where they were as good as they were going to be with eight almost-consecutive preceding performances on the trot, Brisbane the last port of call.   Which probably explain Tognetti’s insistence at the end of the Eroica in going round the band, congratulating/thanking each participant; a well-deserved recognition for a sustained professional mini-odyssey.

While the E flat Symphony No. 3 is a repertory warhorse, battle-scarred from two-plus centuries of usage both good and bad, the first two symphonies are rarely aired by state orchestras, who are ever eager to take up the public’s reliable investment in the well-worn and familiar.   And I think some of us would have gained the main benefit of this exercise through experiencing live, vivid performances of these two remarkable constructs rather than by waiting to see what interpretative quirks peppered the night’s final offering.

For a thoroughly worked-in concert, this occasion did not begin well, the opening movement’s pizzicato chords in the Symphony No. 1 given scatter-gun treatment until the third one reached a requisite level of congruence.   The remainder of the Adagio introduction worked to better effect before the first violins rattled into the Allegro proper, its first subject setting up the night’s modus operandi with a spiky attack.   The rapid crescendo-decrescendo device was worked heavily inside phrases, and the designated sforzando notes were delivered with a very powerful punch from all string quarters, to the point where succeeding semiquavers tended to be lost.   Further along, you were pressed to work out whether the wind had been taken by surprise or the string corps were champing at the tempo bit; whatever the case, you could sense a discrepancy, a slight lack of uniformity.   With distracting frequency, Tognetti kept turning to the players directly behind him throughout the night – encouraging their efforts, for sure, but also appearing to urge the pace.

Another feature of the string texture, notably in the first two symphonies, was an abstention from vibrato at certain stages, carefully selected hiatus points where the fabric could benefit from a change in timbre.   This made for an attention-focusing version of the Andante to the C Major symphony where, after adjusting to some unusual pitch peculiarities from the upper woodwind, the ensemble gave a perky account of pages that less conscientious bodies stroll through at ambling pace.   Straight away in the third movement, the strings impressed with their short bowing stabs which gave an urgent character to the outer sections.   If you were looking for faults, the only questionable product in these pages came towards the end of the Trio where the violins’ passage work sounded scruffy on the first time through.

The finale’s Adagio opening came across as a splendid, minuscule piece of musical theatre; not so much searching for resolution but consciously teetering on the edge of that infectious break into this work’s light-fingered vivace finale.  Tognetti set a blistering pace for this movement proper, again urging his colleagues onward and achieving a commensurate response from the wind forces, at the same time giving them room to be heard, particularly bassoons Jane Gower and Lisa Goldberg whose gritty sound-colour came through in exposed moments, even if their work involved no solos.

At the slow opening to the D Major Symphony, I was nonplussed by the timbre of oboes Helene Mourot and Lidewei De Sterck which sounded rough-hewn, even for period instruments.   But, by the time we came to the interplay between woodwind and strings at bar 29, the oddity had been evened out, chiefly by the introduction of other wind players.  Once again, the ACO/ANAM string players attacked the first movement Allegro con brio with lashings of piss and vinegar, probably assisted in maintaining their stamina by the absence of an Exposition repeat; they were but passing this way once.   To my ear, one of the most remarkable points of play came in the violin triplets beginning at bar 187: a model of delicacy and restraint in a performance notable for its weltering activity.   It certainly shone when compared with the movement’s last note: a sustained semibreve D which sounded over-aggressive and coarse.

With the following Larghetto, the playing presented  –  for once  –  as slightly affected and dulcet in the extended main melodies, which in fact contrasted tellingly with intermediary passages where the players took to bowing in alternate briskly detached notes and something close to saltando.   Still, the modified reversion beginning from bar 158  demonstrated the ACO’s ability to find new facets to familiar sentences, ensuring that you never felt that these performers were going through the motions, but rather were concerned with re-presenting material with many unexpected shifts in balance and dynamic.

In the second half of the third movement’s outer segments, notes tended to disappear in the violins’ descending scale phrases, but the Trio proved to be hard-hitting and volatile with reliable horn work in the last 14 bars of the second half.   Tognetti led his forces through a break-neck account of the Allegro molto finale, urging his first violins by way of repeated exhibitions to them of the style of attack he required.   Occasionally, this generated sparks, as in several punchy repetitions of the quirky figure that punctuates the movement’s first theme; less often, the concerted string corps sounded hard-pressed, caught in a chugging action.   At certain points, the wind in ensemble work came across as unbalanced  in their handling of the second subject where the strings thin out or offer functional support.   Yet the end result was persuasive, capping a determined and cleverly crafted interpretation.

It is hard to find strikingly new facets to the Eroica.   Performances that emphasize  harmonic shocks or emphasize the thematic brusqueness in each movement have little capacity to raise eyebrows in this jaded age.   Tognetti’s reading found plenty of drama and a vehemence that didn’t teeter over into lurching from one overwrought climax to the next.   Most praiseworthy was an over-arching integrity in delineating each of the four movements’ characteristic shapes, encouraging the sort of consciousness in us listeners of large-scale paragraphs being woven seamlessly together – something along the lines of Furtwangler’s achievement with Bruckner symphonies.   As a responsible director, Tognetti brought a combative drama to the chain of discords starting at bar 180 of the first movement, but he ensured that they grew organically out of the preceding 132 bars.   The reading’s transmission of continuity ensured that this large-scale Allegro con brio kept you engaged across its wide length.

The second movement of this symphony, Beethoven’s funeral march, is a taxing interpretative test, mainly because conductors have to decide on whether or not to stress the score’s potential for pathos.  To my mind, it requires more of a stoic resolve and needs to be taken at a speed which takes just as much notice of the assai as the Adagio in the heading.   Following from several previous stages during this concert, you were startled that Tognetti’s sound made so significant a difference to the upper strings’ effectiveness; when he had settled his forces into the desired performance mode, he played with a carrying timbre that noticeably enriched the band’s output.   Through a combination of sympathy and discipline, the musicians generated a cogent, composite account of this bold expression of controlled grief.

Particularly admirable was the orchestra’s restraint and care with details in the symphony’s third movement/scherzo; the control exercised by all involved up to the half-way point’s fortissimo explosion, coupled with an abstention from a hefty chugging sound continuum, ensured that the success of the score’s first half was repeated.   Later, the three horns grabbed your attention by working through the Trio with no signs of stress that weren’t associated with their instruments’ natural abilities.   The following set of variations that constitute the symphony’s finale offered another high point among several across this concert’s length thanks to a vigorous approach and an ability to weave each variation into the next and to infuse each of them with individuality.

As on previous occasions (not all, but quite a few) when the ACO puts its efforts into treating a solid orchestral Classical/Romantic masterpiece, you came away from this concert with positive reactions.   During the E flat symphony, you could delight in the performers’ unanimity of effort and rich palette of colours.   But just as memorable was the biting address invested in this work’s two predecessors.   Yes, we will be treated to more large-scale Beethoven over this year from other organizations and ensembles, but the memory of this event will be lasting and its level of accomplishment could remain our benchmark for the remaining ten months of celebrations.