BBC Proms 2014: Beethoven Symphony No. 9

Rebecca Franks enjoys the penultimate Prom of 2014

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BBC Proms 2014: Beethoven Symphony No. 9
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This year’s penultimate Prom saw the tradition of performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony restored, with one of Germany’s finest orchestras doing the honours. It was a warm-spirited, lithe and engaging performance that the audience, if the applause was anything to go by, took to their hearts – it felt like a true finale to the season, after which the Last Night of the Proms could be an unashamedly frivolous party.

Friedrich Cerha’s Paraphrase on the Opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, a Proms premiere, was an effective meditation on the ‘at the start of time’ feeling of the symphony. Beginning in glacial stillness, with chilly strings and wind, and the metallic tang of chimes, Cerha played with Beethoven’s motifs, building them up into jagged fury, and even seeming to echo the opening of the finale, before the music subsided back into nothingness. While perhaps not hugely memorable as a standalone piece, it worked well in context, feeding off and into Beethoven’s Ninth, the main event.

As the Symphony’s nebulous opening, with its descending fourths, began to coalesce into the first emphatic theme, it became clear that the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Alan Gilbert – who replaced the orchestra’s regular conductor Riccardo Chailly, due to a broken arm – saw this as a movement full of momentum and anticipation: a dark-hued statement that moved towards almost Mahlerian angst in its final bars.

And for all the lightness of the following scherzo, this performance – impelled by a lively timpanist – rightly brought out the music’s earthy substance rather than any Mendelssohnian fairy magic. If there was a pedestrian feel in several places of the scherzo, the musicians’ fluid way with the Presto trio section was winning – with a boppy bassoon, lyrical flute, bell-like horns and beautifully-phrased strings.

Plenty of inner detail emerged in the Adagio third movement – a viola line here, a second violin one there – sometimes to the detriment of more melodic material and the overall coherence. But the Gewandhaus’s fulsome, mellow sound provided a fine-hued pallette for these consolatory, cantabile variations.

Gilbert leapt into the call-to-attention Presto of the finale almost immediately, refusing to indulge any of the hall’s coughers, with the Leipzigers’ double basses and cellos wonderfully in their vocal-like expression, as if instruments were trying to burst into song.

Perhaps most remarkable, though, was their intense pianissimo at the Allegro Assai, seeming to draw the audience close into the stage. Gilbert, while not a demonstrative stage presence, came into his own here: where before it felt as if the orchestra was driving the interpretation – no bad thing – here the New Yorker knew exactly what he wanted to do and how to make the design of this so-called ‘symphony within a symphony’ work.

His massed choral forces – the Leipzig Gewandhaus Chorus and Children’s Chorus, along with the London Symphony Chorus – made an impressive presence in keeping with the scale of the Royal Albert Hall, singing with nuance and confidence, though, to my ears, with a hint of Anglicised German. A finely-matched quartet of soloists – soprano Christina Landshamer, mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger, tenor Steve Davislim, and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy – crowned this movement in all the joyous glory it deserved.

 

 

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