Saturday, 10 June 2017

PHILIPPE HERREWEGHE CONDUCTS BEETHOVEN / Orchestre des Champs-Élysées / Review

Orchestre des Champs-Élysées
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (9 June 2017)

One simply cannot get enough of Beethoven symphonies. Whether performed by a world class orchestra or some indifferent part-time outfit, there is something to be gained with each listen. It is Beethoven's sheer humanity – whatever foibles alongside pure genius – that lives within every note he committed to paper has the ability to move, transform one's worldview and hopefully change lives for the better.

The last week saw me wander through the ranks of the ADDO Chamber Orchestra at Esplanade Rehearsal Studio as they dutifully eked out Beethoven's Fifth, and thrilled while listening to Shui Lan's Copenhagen Phil recorded cycle on CD. Next week is The Philharmonic Orchestra's turn to present Beethoven's Second and Third in their second instalment of their second cycle of performances. All the these will find no doubt fertile soil in the ears and the memory, but the moment to live for was now: with the pleasure of Orchestre des Champs-Élysées' performances of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies under the baton of its founder-conductor Philippe Herreweghe.

The EU-based (Paris and Brussels) chamber orchestra specialises in period performing practice, that is recreating performances using instruments (and replicas) that are native to the era and milieu when the works were originally composed. It is fanciful to imagine that the Fifth Symphony experienced tonight was identical to what was heard in that December 1808 Vienna marathon concert. Firstly, modern players are far better than their forebears from two centuries ago, and the conductor Beethoven himself was already well into an advanced state of deafness. And the acoustics, and the audience...

Tonight we had a generally well-disciplined audience that did not applaud between movements, but the bronchial eructations after the slow movements of both symphonies could fill a tuberculosis sanatorium and some.

But back to the music, the audience was treated to what period performances of Beethoven sounds like – lithe but not lightweight, brisk but not hectic, vigorous but not brusque - a far cry from those old Karajan and Klemperer recordings. Thanks to a precedent set by the likes of Brüggen, Gardiner, Hogwood and Harnoncourt (in alphabetical order) in their performances and recordings, Herreweghe's approach is no longer considered heretical, but almost the standard. Coupled with playing of exceptional finesse and synchrony, it made for a most memorable evening.

As expected, the opening of the Fifth was taken in a fast clip, with no agogic pauses or posturings, contrasted by a more relaxed slow movement which breathed easily but still faster than oldie recordings. The vitality evinced at this pace was refreshing and invigorating, and nothing was made to sound business-like. 

Excellent strings supported a most piquant woodwind contribution (the sounds of which always piqued the ear) and stunning brass (especially the natural horns), which invariably got the loudest cheers. The Scherzo and grandstanding finale raced through like the wind, and at the final emphatic chords, the symphony clocked in at just under 30 and a half minutes. Amazing, especially when one was not made to feel rushed in the process. Excitement and adrenaline does that to people.

The Seventh is a longer work, and again, timing was merely relative. The long 1st movement introduction was purposefully built up, and there was no let up in the ensuing Allegro. The slow movement was a paradigm of control and expert pacing. At its first perfomance, the audience demanded an instant encore, and Beethoven obliged on the spot. Our audience accorded it with a long chorus of coughing, the ridiculousness of it all also roused a ripple of mirth. 

The 3rd and 4th movements were a case of fast and faster still (Wagner's famous description of “the Apotheosis of the Dance”, and the accuracy of playing at that speeds was a marvel of togetherness. The orchestra did not miss a beat, and that is what distinguished playing of the highest order. Timing: a few seconds short of 40 minutes, but what a journey.

Cue loud and prolonged applause (but no standing ovation), and there was an encore to reward the sellout crowd: the rambunctious Scherzo from the Fourth Symphony. Before I conclude, a shout out goes to Natalie Ng's well-researched and eminently readable programme notes, which also enchanced the experience. Here was an unforgettable evening of period performance Beethoven, hopefully not the last to be heard on this platform.

This concert was part of the Esplanade Presents (Classics) series. 

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