In the last of the three-in-one concerts this year at the Edinburgh Festival, we heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Normally this would be an event on its own, but here the work was paired not only with the virtuosic Op. 106 sonata in B flat (the Hammerklavier), but also with Bruckner’s unfinished masterpiece, his own Ninth Symphony.
In the wrong hands, this could have seemed like overload, but here, the evening sped by, each performance both existing on its own terms and contributing to the programme.
To start, Charles Mackerras gave yet another exceptional performance, this time with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Beethoven’s Ninth has rarely sounded so spontaneous and utterly free from bombast. The opening of the first movement shimmered in anticipation. Perfectly weighted textures of violins, flutes and bassoons contrasted the percussive thud of the timpani and the weighty brass declarations. The scherzo was crisp, the adagio not too slow. Mackerras’ conducting was revelatory. A flute was emphasised here; a restless bassoon fragment there.
In some hands, the final movement can seem pompous, but here that famous melody was delivered with such foresight and imagination that the symphony raced to a climax which almost seemed to come too soon. The choir offered their full support, with a rich, bass infested resonance, although the tenors were found wanting when the tessitura was high.
The quartet of soloists was poor, to be frank. Baritone Detlef Roth‘s declamatory, dramatically overcooked delivery would have made even the great tenor Franco Corelli blush, while Stuart Skelton was inaudible (though why were the singers unhelpfully positioned behind the orchestra?). The two ladies, Janice Watson and Catherine Wyn-Rogers could well have been auditioning for Vogue, with the former in dazzling blue and the latter in autumnal shades of amber. Their singing, however, was undistinguished. Luckily, with Mackerras there to wrap the piece up with a life-affirming cadential passage, the final impression was of a truly memorable performance.
Llyr Williams was up next, performing Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata. His tempi were imaginative and his tone at the high and low ends of the piano clear and ringing. I am still concerned, though, about his pedalling, which troubled at the Proms earlier in the month and here strangled much of his middle range. This was especially apparent in such a warm acoustic. Happily, as the performance progressed, Williams grew in stature, ending with an inescapably beautiful Adagio and a jaw-dropping fugue that earned him a standing ovation from many in the audience.
At 9.30pm, we returned for Bruckner’s final symphony, conducted by Jir Belohlvek and played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Belohlvek took a symphonic view of the score and emphasised both the growing fury of the Scherzo and the emotional turmoil in the Adagio. The orchestra was sadly let down by the violins, who often struggled to find the correct pitch (though guest leader Andrew Haveron tried his hardest). Elsewhere, the meaty climaxes of scurrying strings and firm brass seared through the hall, while a solo oboe in the first movement deserves praise for unusually attentive phrasing.
There could barely be a better way to end this series of concerts at the Edinburgh Festival than with these three. Mackerras’s Beethoven has been a highlight of the cultural year, while a cycle of Bruckner symphonies is not to be missed. Llyr Williams did not necessarily provide a definitive performance, but he confirmed his reputation as a pianist to watch in the coming years. All in all, a special evening.