The final week of the 2019 Proms season saw the festival observe a tradition from its early years, by focusing Monday night’s concert on Wagner, Wednesday’s on Bach and Friday’s on Beethoven. The last of these saw the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover, under the baton of Andrew Manze, deliver playing of Beethoven (and Handel and Bach) that was for the most part extremely well paced and shaped.
Manze is a very dynamic conductor, but there was never anything superfluous about his gestures, and it was clear just how closely the orchestra was responding to each of his urgings. As a result, the precision and attention to detail shown in the playing led to impeccably balanced performances where changes in mood or tempi were minutely managed, and warmth could walk hand in hand with strong rhythmic awareness. The few weaker moments there were derived from those points at which the orchestra’s actions felt very deliberate in this respect, whereas for the vast majority of the evening it never occurred to us just how much thought had gone into managing the sound because the output seemed to flow so naturally.
The evening’s first piece, Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749), revealed a full palette of colours and textures that could only derive from technically precise playing, while also conveying an overarching sense of grandeur. In this way, La paix combined richness with sensitivity while La Réjouissance achieved the right level of triumphalism while maintaining a strong sense of elegance. In the final Menuets, however, while there was still no doubting the overall strength of the playing, the transition from the first to the second, and from D minor to the home key of D major, did feel obvious as it lacked the sense of integrity that was so prevalent elsewhere.
Notwithstanding the encore (the Lentement and Bourée from Handel’s Water Music Suite in D Major, HWV 349 of 1717), the concert closed with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1807-8), in which once again the underlying precision to the playing proved to be the foundation upon which everything else rested. The opening four note motif felt short, sharp and almost clipped. It thus served as the basis for an Allegro con brio that flowed beautifully as the playing moved forward at quite a fast pace, and yet one that proved highly appropriate because what was captured felt so smooth. The Andante con moto featured some beautiful wind playing, which combined a real sense of security and togetherness with sublime tone, while the third movement had strong airs of both momentum and intrigue. The finale, however, while it certainly possessed richness, lacked something in terms of the boisterousness that can be a vital component of the movement. Nevertheless, as a way of concluding what was such a beautifully measured performance, it felt entirely appropriate.
The Prom included a nicely judged performance of the Overture to Fidelio (1814), and a beautiful rendition of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 537 (c.1708-17), in which it was interesting to see how Elgar went beyond conventional interpretation when he arranged the work in 1921. Elizabeth Watts sang in both halves of the concert, presenting the concert aria ‘Ah! Perfido’, Op. 65 (1795-96) and following up the Overture to Fidelio with a performance of Leonore’s recitative ‘Abscheulcher!’ (1814) and succeeding aria ‘Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern’ (1804-5, rev. 1814). Her immensely committed and engaging performances saw her soprano demonstrate such security that her impassioned sound revealed the utmost sensitivity.