Reviews, News and Commentary

The APO’s wonderful, Radical Beethoven concert

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra Image; Adrian Malloch

The Radical

Beethoven Symphony No.8 and Symphony No.9 

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and Voices New Zealand
New Zealand Youth Choir, New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir, The Graduate Choir New Zealand

Conductor Giordano Bellincampi

Choral Director Karen Grylls

Auckland Town Hall

March 3

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Ever since Beethoven’s 250th celebration three years ago there have been numerous concerts featuring the composer’s works including several performances of his entire symphonic output. Orchestras have continued to attract large audiences to his work and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra has been no exception. With their latest concert “The Radical” they performed the composers last two symphonies – No 8 and No9 on two subsequent nights, both to packed houses.

All of Beethoven’s symphonies are impressive and radical, each in their own way but the last two works show the composer to be at the height of his powers. The Eighth is his shortest symphony while the Ninth his longest at close to 70 minutes.

It is difficult to appreciate 200 years after these works were first performed just how  different his music was. He was a moderntist at heart, taking a radical approach   to the architecture and structure of the music on an overarching scale which had not been evident in much music up till then. His work was like a major novel when all before were short stories.

While, the Eighth is short Beethoven took a structurally radical approach which is not as apparent in his  other symphonies. There are several breaks or pauses with some passages not even fully resolved. In the short second movement he plays with  the rhythms, such as  the repeated staccato chords in the woodwind, or his trick of putting a fortissimo right next to a pianissimo.

There is also something of a  paradox with the symphony. At one level you’re listening to a light-hearted work, but Beethoven is in reality experimenting with the format, reforming the symphony.

Conductor Giordano Bellincampi recognised these aspects in the music as the work moved from the dramatic to the lyrical, his body movements changing from the dance-like to the grand, dramatic gesture.

The main themes of the work is not taken through a set of variations in the old style but through a set of reworkings which range  from the lyrical through to passages which reach a fever pitch.

In the second movement the timpani which are normally used as a base for the orchestra took on the role of soloists with a stirring display.

Some of these experiments are then elaborated on in the Ninth where he also draws on many of his earlier symphonies, notably the Fifth.

With the Ninth symphony one was aware of the orchestra creating a dynamic structure, a sonic temple worthy of the Heroic Man which the composer often reflects on in his works.

The first movement of the symphony which opens with sixteen hushed bars was followed by music that had an unsettling and edgy quality to it that subtly added an unexpected and provocative tone.

Bellincampi skilfully captured the constantly changing moods and dynamics, and made a point of keeping the volume and energy contained and there was also a sense of him building the architectural structure of the work. With his hand movements he appeared to be describing the shapes and forms  conjured up by the music .

He carefully explored various aspects of the music – the pathos, the drama and the lyrical. There were sequences where Bellincampi had the orchestra raging at full force and then he would calm the players down to not much more than a whisper.

Throughout the final movement which is a kind of symphony within a symphony, Bellincampi showed himself to be a master dramatist, adroitly managing the sense of unease and anticipation at the outset.

With the entrance of the chorus the wave of sound was like  a physical force, a  wonderfully daring and startling sound which continued along with the surging orchestra and the frantic Bellincampi as they raced on to the exhilarating climax of the “Ode to Joy.” 

The four soloists along with the combined choirs  delivered a  superlative performance. Bass Samuel Dundas gave a  strong and sure performance as did tenor Manese Latu with his stirring voice.  Mezzo Sally-Ann Russell and soprano Kirstin Sharpin provided a fine accompaniment with full rich voices.

The work has often been played as celebrations of freedom and the work resonated with many of the issues of present  times. These are summed up in Beethoven’s lifelong belief in hope and freedom. It shows the best of what humanity has to offer.

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By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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