fri 14/06/2024

Beethoven Weekender, Barbican review - genius at work and play | reviews, news & interviews

Beethoven Weekender, Barbican review - genius at work and play

Beethoven Weekender, Barbican review - genius at work and play

Insights galore in music that never gets old

Kirill Karabits, leading the Bournemouth SO in an incandescent 'Eroica' at the Barbican's Beethoven WeekenderAll images © Mark Allan/Barbican

Where to begin with the most appropriated musician in history? The Barbican’s Beethoven 250 celebrations got off to an auspicious start with a weekend of events, styled like a pop festival, which nonetheless put the composer back where he belonged – in Vienna, at the turn of the 18th century – and set fire to some tenacious myths.

Struggle, transcendence and humour – music that laughs, often through gritted teeth – are the hallmarks of Beethoven’s work. Forget the Ninth’s appropriation as a crutch to prop up manifestos of every stripe: young and not-so-young listeners were entranced at the Barbican by a screening of Ludwig, the 70s cartoon series featuring a robotic egg and lovingly recreated here with live performances of the backing music – and the original narrator, Jon Glover, reprising his role in person.The Carducci Quartet and Simon Callow in the Barbican's Beethoven WeekenderThe Carducci Quartet lent valuable context to Simon Callow (pictured above) – or was it the other way around? Not easy to tell – declaiming from letters which shed light on Beethoven’s deafness and his love-life, such as it was, as well as his clumsy and ultimately failed attempt to become his nephew’s guardian. Settled into an armchair over at LSO St Luke’s, Gerald McBurney was a more avuncular narrator for Christopher Park’s bewitching evocation of Beethoven having fun at the piano (pictured below), pleasing his aristocratic patrons and giving patient instruction to his young pupils. Time ran out before I could hare off to Milton Court for "Beethoven’s Violin" – yes, his very own instrument – hosted by Sara Mohr-Pietsch. Gerard McBurney and Christopher Park at the Barbican's Beethoven WeekenderFive English orchestras from outside London formed the weekend’s backbone, sharing the nine symphonies between them in performances that often bristled with purpose and occasionally touched the sublime. Each symphony was introduced on stage by the ebullient John Suchet, though the intended audience for his fund of chatty anecdote wasn’t clear: "Pretty cringe" and "When is the music starting?" were the verdicts of the 10- and 14-year-olds to my right. Harsh, but fair. Suchet’s summary of the Eighth as an "afterthought" to the Seventh took the biscuit, especially in the context of a performance from the Royal Northern Sinfonia, directed by Lars Vogt, that made it a powerfully built elder brother to the "Serioso" Quartet, an opus number earlier and the gateway to Beethoven’s late style.

In fact throughout the weekend, the best of the music-making resisted, with Beethovenian truculence, any narrative attempts to romanticize and update him. The Seventh and Eighth with Vogt, and the First and Third with Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth SO, always kept Haydn and Mozart in the rear-view mirror. It was rather in more Romantically scaled accounts of the Fifth and Sixth, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Vasily Petrenko (sharing a joke with Suchet below), that a tired, monumental aspect prevailed, at odds with the famous portrait that scowled at us from every corner of the Barbican. Vasily Petrenko and John Suchet at the Barbican's Beethoven WeekenderUnder Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra sounded a size too large for the hall in the Second and Fourth, well-honed but relentlessly driven, and dominated by period trumpets and drums that Karabits had more judiciously balanced with the body of his Bournemouth band. Once past its whip-crack opening chord, the finale of the Second was a curiously humourless affair, and the Fourth especially suffered from a policy of exposition-repeat economy presumably designed to keep these no-interval concerts to a manageable length.

Finally, inevitably, the Ninth broadcast its own manifesto of universal brotherhood, rather heavily invested with a sense of its own significance by Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé. Singing from memory, the Hallé Choir gave their all, and a well-matched team of soloists – crowned by Elizabeth Atherton's pearly soprano, remarkably unperturbed by some of Elder’s more grandiose tempi – brought home Beethoven’s message of joy in the teeth of troubled times.

Close listening to all nine symphonies in a weekend yielded more personal insights: how infrequently, if ever, Beethoven writes mezzo-forte into his scores, and yet how the high contrasts in his music won't work without it, like a heavily saturated ("deep-fried") image; how it's possible to impart old-world charm as well as concealed disruption to the minuets and scherzos; how wide the turning-circle of the Ninth is compared to the Third. For once, Suchet was on to something, thanks at least to Karabits' attentive but incandescent account: the "Eroica" really did sound like the symphony that changed music for ever.


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