BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY NO. 9 – SYMPHONIA CHORALIS (VIC)
Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo
Sunday December 11, 2022
We’ve imbibed all the old saws throughout our lives; warnings about Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, or injunctions along the lines of Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp . . . and very encouraging/discouraging they can be. But surely you have to take these up on a personal basis, judging how they apply to you. It’s a different matter when you involve others in your aspirations: then, the ambition is a shared one, the grasp becomes common property. Also, if you exert yourself to carry off an individual accomplishment, it’s OK if success or failure belongs to you and you alone.
Concerning this concert broadcast under the Australian Digital Concert Hall auspices, Browning’s line came to mind many times during the performance. This mighty score tested the grasp of the assembled musicians – Bendigo Symphony and Gisborne Singers – and the results were unhappy, for the most part. Uncertainty ran through the instrumental forces from the opening bars in Beethoven’s Allegro ma non troppo where the sotto voce 5ths and 4ths for the first violins sounded unhappy and uncertain. As with much of what followed, certainty arrived only when everybody was involved, as at the bars 16-to-17 explosion of the movement’s first theme. Biting away at this sudden assurance, the two trumpets dominated this stretch, the theme itself disappearing under the brass’s octave Ds and As. I thought this imbalance might have been due to the ADCH microphone placements, but the problem really lay with the small number of unassertive high strings in the ensemble.
Why the Choral Symphony, of all works? It’s been with us for nearly 200 years and its finale has turned into a celebratory cliche but the complexities involved in getting through the thing still tax even expert musicians who don’t rely on sailing along on the grounds of professional competence and/or regular familiarity. Conductor of the Bendigo and Gisborne forces, Luke Severn was hard pressed to keep his orchestra in time, let alone in tune or taking proper care with articulation and tuning. In the end, this performance struggled up to the last movement and that’s a long stretch of purely orchestral fabric to generate successfully – and to sit through when the output fails to deliver.
As for an actual cause for this concert, it came about through a choral festival held in Bendigo last weekend. On Saturday evening, participating choirs showed their wares to each other (and the public, one assumes), while the combined forces came together on Sunday for the Beethoven Ode – even though the only listed choir in the program was Severn’s Gisborne Singers. In fact, 55 singers were listed as his Gisborners – which is a respectable number but insufficient to carry off this score, particularly as these vocalists were rarely able to produce a sufficiently robust sound.
So Severn was labouring under all kinds of disadvantages, the main one being his players’ pussy-footing round a masterpiece that demands absolute confidence, particularly in its first two movements. All manner of details were muffed, like the violins and violas downward demi-semiquaver scales at bars 34 and 35 and the fatigued upper string sound at bar 71. Every so often the bland texture was disturbed by a misreading, as among the unison strings during bar 116, or by an absence like the missing woodwind at bar 138, or by a simple mistake like the first violin’s falling 5th at bar 177, or by the lack of woodwind coherence in the simple chords of bar 197. Then you’d suddenly come across a patch of competent work as in the flute/bassoon dialogue starting at bar 253 which shone for its unexpected clarity. But matters had become laboured, bogged down in hard slog by bar 333. Horns 1 and 2 had their exposure almost precise at bars 469 to 477 but the trumpet pair revisited their original hard-man brashness from bar 531 on, drowning everything else that was being generated at fortissimo level.
I’m afraid the scherzo fared little better. Right at the start, the trumpets made a mess of their D octave leap in bar 5 and, from then on, we were on tenterhooks as this naturally biting movement progressed. Wisely, Severn did not undertake most of the repeats in either the main body of this vivace or its Trio but you encountered some unexpected pleasures, like the bassoon work kicking off the Ritmo di tre battute pages, counterbalanced by the first oboe unable to make sense of a simple exposed melody line at bar 468. What you really missed in this movement was an efficient contrast between its initial ferocity and its complementary fleet-footed warmth.
It might be a slow movement but Beethoven’s Adagio offers many challenges, most obviously through the exposure of all its executants; the first violins and all four horns enjoy some torridly testing stretches of play. Again, it seemed to be a case of simply getting through these pages without much attempt to shape individual phrases; suppleness was at a premium, exemplified in bar 42 and the rushed lead-up to the violins’ E flat pause (which didn’t happen), as well as the fourth horn’s unhappy arpeggio encounter finishing bar 55. The Andante moderato change in pace went unmarked, but horn 4 gave an almost precise account of the stand-alone bar 96. This near-success was almost immediately followed by the first violins’ rhythmic malfunction at the bar 99 change of key back to B flat and the time signature splaying out to 12/8. One of the simple brass chords across bar 122 proved defective but then this section reached another apogee of strained performance at about bar 141 before a messy account from the first violins of bar 151’s semiquaver triplets.
Cellos and double-basses gave a persuasive account of the finale’s six recitatives but they were set a fast pace through Beethoven’s famous D Major melody starting at bar 92, their tuning occasionally off-centre. When the first violins got their crack at the tune in bar 149, you would have expected that the ensemble would have acquired some fluency in its treatment but their enunciation sounded stilted, although the least impressive part of this celebratory all-in came with a trumpet fluff across the theme’s last phrase at bar 184.
Bass soloist Teddy Tahu Rhodes delineated his O Freunde recitative with a vibrato as wide as the Calder Freeway but his delivery mode proved welcome for its assurance. Which only served to emphasize the lack of projection from the Gisborne altos, tenors and basses at their bar 21 entry of the Allegro assai. Soprano soloist Merlyn Quaife attempted to bring the whole operation back to a more measured, less runaway pace from her Wer ein holdes Weib entry at bar 37. Severn’s forces began the Alla marcia quite well, giving a congenial setting for tenor soloist Michael Petruccelli‘s bravely buoyant Froh investing these pages with much-needed vivacity, although I would have liked his concluding high B flats at bars 101-2 to have been hurled out with more ardour.
The consequent orchestral double fugue proved to be a testing set of pages that simply lacked consistency of output with valuable lines lost in a general melange, climaxing in a pair of disappearing horns at bar 210, their repeated octave F sharp inaudible. While the male choristers gave a good account (if not quite loud enough) of the Seid umschlungen maestoso, their Bruder in bar 17 came over as faint, given the context; but later, the full choral Welt? exclamation in bar 44 made for an unanticipated aural bolt.
The Gisborne sopranos handled the top As that pepper the Allegro energico with laudable vim; speaking of which, it was gratifying to hear the small band of tenors handling the same note with force at bar 65. And it was reassuring to come across mezzo soprano Kristen Leich‘s line emerging clearly during the soloists’ Alle menschen melismatic stroll starting at bar 70. But the performance’s underlying tentativeness endured to the end with an unsatisfying prod at the last stringendo‘s kick-off in bar 81, the concluding bars an unsatisfying series of soft punches.
Obviously, I didn’t enjoy this concert, finding it full of specific flaws and a lack of coherent interpretation. A school of thought that prevails these days believes that any effort is to be praised; you can see this mind-set at work in every classroom across our country where accomplishment comes second to the Morrisonian trope of ‘having a go’. Well, it didn’t work for the self-aggrandizing Australian football team in blood-drenched Qatar; it doesn’t work for the petulant brats who represent us in the world’s tennis stadia; much more importantly, it doesn’t do anything for the thousands of underpaid workers in our hospitals and nursing homes.
You have to be capable of more than good intentions when putting your grappling skills into operation for any Beethoven symphony; this D minor masterwork, one of Western music’s cornerstones, is not a construct for which it’s sufficient to ‘do your best.’\