Beethoven today: Sydney Symphony Orchestra

On Saturday night I heard the Sydney Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (Piano Concerto No 5)  and Symphony No 5  as part of its Beethoven Festival.   They are performing all nine symphonies and the last three piano concerti over a two-week period.  Gerhard Oppitz is the pianist.  In the Thursday morning concert, which, being a “matinee” concert, was somewhat shorter than the corresponding evening concert, he played the “Moonlight” Sonata in substitution for the fourth piano concerto.

I am ambivalent about such festivals, which have more than a whiff of the blockbuster and doorbuster.  Beethoven’s works are frequently heard, and he hardly requires a festival, unless the occasion were used to give his lesser-known works a hearing or to put him in context with his contemporaries or successors who were influenced by him. That was not the point, however of this exercise, which indubitably represents good box office for the SSO. It has been well publicised, and more than one concert has sold out, including last Saturday’s: you could hardly have a more popular program, and the influx of people who wouldn’t otherwise be at an SSO concert was palpable.

We had a special announcement requesting that, because the concerts were being recorded, the audience refrain from applauding between the movements. There has been a bit of an epidemic of this lately, in part because of the SSO’s success in recruiting new audience members.  The request was acceded to, though with the predictable salvos of compensatory coughing.

I know this makes me sound like a bit of a snob. Generally it is the occasional attenders who burst into applause.  Do they think that they alone are properly appreciating the performance and that those who sit in silence are just a bunch of stuffy killjoys? Some hold (and I was once half of like mind) that refraining from applause between movements is elitist. I prefer no applause because, if there is applause, this risks breaking the artists’ concentration.  It invariably unsettles the audience so that the spell is broken and succeeding quiet movements, in particular, never get off to a clean start.

Gianluigi Gelmetti, the orchestra’s chief conductor, is proud of his German repertoire. Received critical opinion, and my own, tend otherwise. To me, his Beethoven is “Beethoven:” big on Romantic portent befitting the famous furrowed brow, but lacking in the rhythmic spring of a student of Haydn and successor to Mozart – this seems to be a consequence of Gelmetti’s relaxed approach where he professes to be fond of allowing the players space to go their own way. This isn’t always helpful: there is, for an example, a sort of cadenza in the last movement of the piano concerto where the timpani has to beat out a quiet ostinato rhythm whilst the piano gets slower and quieter before bursting into the final sprint. They were embarrassingly out of synch. Unsurprisingly, Gelmetti doubles the woodwinds; in the “Emperor” the double basses sounded as though the hi-fi “loudness” button was permanently engaged; in any fast tempo, even if actually at a reasonable speed (though I thought Oppitz would have liked to go a little quicker in the first movement of the “Emperor”) things mostly don’t seem fast enough (especially in the Symphony’s scherzo.)

Beethoven can survive this, because Beethoven is a great composer and he wrote very few mediocre works.  Even his potboilers are well-crafted, though neither of Saturday’s works falls into that category.  Snatches of Beethoven have been emerging from my musical subconscious ever since.

I shall also be hearing Beethoven’s third and sixth symphonies (the “Eroica” and the “Pastoral”) this Friday.  I am sorry, actually, that I did not exchange one of my tickets for last Friday’s concert, when the main item was the Fourth Piano Concerto.  This really is a work which is heard less often (one mostly hears the 3rd and 5th), although being Beethoven, it still rates relatively highly. That the matinee saw this replaced by the ubiquitous “Moonlight” epitomizes my grudge against the festival concept: Beethoven is a big brand, and the “Moonlight” is one of his best known labels.

(To be fair, it is only the first movement of the “Moonlight” which is ubiquitous, so there is something to be said for playing the whole work.)

One Response to “Beethoven today: Sydney Symphony Orchestra”

  1. Beethoven this week: Sydney Symphony Orchestra « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] think that ever actually occurred.  The first movement and the scherzo both contradicted my comments last week about Gelmetti and fast music, and in light of the generally positive reviews (and here) that […]

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