Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Pure Beethoven @ Barbican Hall, London

22 January 2008

Tuesday evening’s concert from the London Symphony Orchestra programmed two Beethoven symphonies, the Second and the Eighth.

When constructing this all (‘Pure’) Beethoven line up, it was probably sensible to present two of the composer’s more apparently unassuming symphonies.

However, despite the concert’s sonic grandeur, I left feeling unmoved.

Today, we may look at Beethoven’s Second Symphony, completed in 1802, as cheerful, but it was evidently shocking to contemporary audiences, who had rarely seen a work in this style of such length and proportions: one critic famously referred to it as “a hideously writhing wounded dragon that refuses to die”. We may now examine the work in terms of how Beethoven absorbs the Haydnian symphonic tradition and instills his own tempestuous temperament into it, but originally the reaction was of antipathy, this symphony too grotesque and prolonged for the taste of the time.

But how audiences change! Ten years later, in 1812, Beethoven published his “little” Eighth Symphony, and disappointed a public expecting further monumentality and fire after the driving Seventh: this work, in seeming so immediately accessible, was a let down. Whereas modern audiences tend to forget the Second Symphony‘s grotesqueness and enjoy it for its cheeky sense of fun, opinion increasingly divides over the penultimate symphony of Beethoven’s canon, uncertainty lingering over whether this is a parody of, a culmination of, a dismissal of or a celebration of the Classical style. I tend to read irony into the work, but if so, it is irony at its most delightful.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner drew from the slightly paired-down LSO a rich, neatly constructed sound, rich of strings and able to explore dynamic possibilities with no loss to security of intonation or timbre; the ensemble pianos gracefully tickled the ear. However, the symphonic interpretations here, while exploring the subtle and not-so-subtle qualities of grotesqueness present in both works, veered towards emerging as caricatured themselves. The fortes, bolstered by incessantly overstated timpani rolls, were initially exciting in the Adagio molto‘s ambiguous opening, then very soon troubling in their loudness and tendency towards vulgarity.

Rather than achieving a true sense of ebb and flow in the Second Symphony, Gardiner’s interpretation presented a series of obstreperous climaxes, disinterested melodic lines rising to and dropping from them. In the Scherzo, the divided violins excelled in passages of string antiphony, while the beautiful cello tone in the Allegro molto was notable. However, the continually heavy articulation and polarisation of dynamics (between the very loud and the very quiet) seemed too intent on impressing, however actually impressive the performance could be. In the Eighth Symphony, Gardiner’s approach became tiresome, and the work’s comedy did not emerge fully until the swift, chugging Allegro vivace, however widely expressive the violins were in the first movement. It was not so much a specifically heavy-handed approach from the conductor as a responsive, nimble reading, but one poorly rendered in this close acoustic.

The most effective work on the programme was the central piece, Beethoven’s second overture to Fidelio of 1805, perhaps because its shorter length did not make such a sustained demand on the human ear. The strings’ sinewy quality worked well in the opening’s long, hanging evocation of a dungeon, and the following victorious tune was stirringly played. The off-stage trumpeter’s climactic interpolation proved equally dramatic, though amusingly the player took his bow holding a trombone! The problem with the concert was, indeed, that this singular moment was more humorous than most of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, however aurally arresting one found the LSO’s sound.

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