Beethoven 250, BSO at Poole Lighthouse

Beethoven Symphony No. 1
Stravinsky Violin Concerto
Beethoven  Symphony No. 3, Eroica

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra leader Amyn Merchant
Kirill Karabits:  Conductor
Stefan Jackiw:  Violin

THERE has been a complete revolution in how orchestral Beethoven is performed and sounds during the last 50 years.  On Radio 3’s Record Review last Saturday, available recordings of Beethoven’s 1st Symphony were considered and evaluated.  You can download the podcast here:

In this fascinating discussion, the doyens of Beethoven interpreters in the 1970s, Karajan and Klemperer, barely get a look in.  Karajan’s sleek polish and Klemperer’s rugged high seriousness have become outmoded. Contemporary performances, influenced by research into how this music might have sounded in the early 19th century, use smaller forces and faster tempi, sticking to Beethoven’s metronome speeds which were widely ignored before. They bring out the sheer exuberant drama, fun and quirkiness of the piece.

Now, we are used to performances that live up to Sir Roger Norrington’s description of Beethoven as a classist who stumbled into romanticism, “late Haydn” rather than “early Wagner”.  Karabits’s conducting of both the Beethoven symphonies in this concert fully bore this approach out. In the First symphony, which started the programme, Karabits divided his violins left and right and stationed his two basses to his left to balance the timpani on his right. Conducting with no baton from a low rostrum, the performance felt chamber-sized rather than monumental.

This arrangement was continued with the rather larger forces in the Eroica symphony after the interval. Here, the clean, brisk playing was intensely dramatic.  Karabits started with something of a coup de theatre, whipping up the orchestra to instantly deliver the first two monumental chords fortissimo, drowning out the audience’s applause for the arrival of the conductor.  This caught us all by surprise, which is exactly what that first audience must have felt in 1803. No symphony had ever begun quite like this!

Both performances were richly satisfying, fresh, det­ailed and alert, with players and conductor perfectly att­uned to one another. Long may this relationship, which has seen the orchestra set constantly higher standards, prosper and continue.

The ham in the Beethoven sandwich was a performance by the American violinist Stefan Jackiw of Stravinsky’s Violin Concert of 1931. More neo-baroque than neo-classical, it is an engaging piece, adding trombones, tuba, contrabassoon, cor anglais and bass drum to Beethoven’s classical orchestra. If this sounds heavy, it wasn’t: textures are often chamber music-like, and the extra instruments add variety of tone rather than weight. This is a concerto where the soloist is first among equals rather than a heroic loner, and Jackiw’s seemingly effortless and secure playing served the music very well.


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