2020 sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven. Whilst this year should be honoured, you do get the feeling that the German composer needs little of celebration, as he is always in today’s classical landscape. Through this came an inspired idea by two of Cardiff’s great musical institutions.
On the 22nd of December 1808 in Vienna, Beethoven held a concert fundraiser to try to remedy his concerning money problems (he would later become the first ever composer to receive a salary with no duties, composing at his leisure). The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera along with the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales have recreated this famous concert. This was no small feat, people!
Both orchestras shared the load of doing four pieces each, though the WNO bill was much longer in comparison. It was sad to not see the Chorus of WNO in this all-inclusive event (in keeping with their recent joint Messiah performance). With little rest from their Journey to Vienna tour in the new year, WNO began (the programme is in the same order as the original concert) with his 6th Symphony. Dubbed the ‘Pastoral’ this delightful work was a great way to start this blockbuster event. There are many delights to be found here, the charming melody of the opening moment, the birdsong flurries of the second moment: flute as nightingale, oboe as a quail in oboe and the cuckoo in the clarinet (all named in the score,) are just some examples.
The third movement features the iffy work of an off-kilter amateur village band. Through the infectious nature of it all, it remains a jolly time. The hurtling Storm passage throws you off, as it interrupts the tranquil settings for a more dramatic punch, with the timpani hammering away, the brass rampant. Solace is found in the finale with a shepherd’s herding call (like the one’s in the alpine region) which then infuses into the other instrument and then the whole orchestra. Delightful played by the musicians and with love and care from Carlo Rizzi, conducting from memory, no less.
‘Ah! perfido’ concert aria consists of recitative and aria sections that feel like they are plucked straight out of an opera. An unknown libretto (the recitative is from Achille in Sciro by poet Pietro Metastas) features a forsaken heroine filled with fury and all-consuming passion. This was unknown to me, though I knew of the composer’s power in song (Fidelio and the Choral Symphony are strong examples) and it made for a transfixing few minutes. Soprano Alwyn Mellor kept up this drama in an absorbing performance of pure operatic tension. This is a great little find.
The Gloria from the Mass in C major was one of threes extracts to be heard, a blaze of glory for the players, stunning BBC Chorus and the four soloists: soprano Harriet Eyley, mezzo Angharad Lyddon, tenor Alexander Sprague and baritone Steffan Lloyd Owen. These four singers added a rich texture to these sacred harmonies in music which might have surprised first listeners, though still being in the vein of his teacher Haydn. More of this Mass later.
WNO ended their stint with the 4th Piano Concerto, with Steven Osborne as soloist. His sensible yet at times jolting playing, held the piece up for its distilled quality, its strange aura. This piece has the odd marker of starting with just the piano (you expect the orchestra to begin) unconventional by concerto standards. This theme is then heard throughout the piece in various guises. The strings have stimulating moments, the conversation with piano in the slow movement Andante con motto, which Liszt described as “Orpheus taming the Furies”, stands out. Even through the some what strange qualities, the work is compelling and Osborne made it all his own. An interval of 90 minutes gave us some rest bite.
It was BBC NOW’s time to shine and by golly, did they. Their performance of the 5th Symphony was the heart of the entire enterprise. Whilst we all know the famous opening four-note motto, the symphony is full of so much more. A regal theme which is heard throughout, is another standout idea, getting more grandiose with every reoccurrence. The false-ends had my plus one tittering, though I was used to Beethoven’s trickery. This felt like a special performance filled with shock and sensation, the symphony’s place in the canon has always been justified. One wonders just what that first audience in Vienna though of this bombastic, yet brilliant piece, back in that chilly night in Vienna.
More of the Mass with the same soloists, gave us the Sanctus and Benedictus. There was a more sombre veil here, with the solo singers opening the later movement alone. I think I would be more taken in hearing the whole Mass then just snippets, though we know why these extracts were flung into the original concert fundraiser. The feeling was deep and the mood sobering. Along with the soloists, Robert Court on organ appeared to be the only instrumentalist in both parts of the concert.
Llŷr Williams finally arrived on stage for the Fantasia for solo piano. Things got intimate in the hall, as the lights were dimmed and a lone spotlight lingered on the great, Welsh pianist. This piece is believed to capture the improvised work that Beethoven attempted on the night and you get a feel of this when heard even today. Two descending scales start off and flitter around the whole piece in cut up sections. It’s quirky music and Williams make mince meat of the whole ten minutes, never a bead of sweat visible. It’s Allegretto also sticks out with these swift scales in a work which requires more then one listen. It of course, would not be a performance by Llŷr Williams unless he cheekily turns to the audience as he finishes playing.
It’s reported that the final piece on the bill: the Fantasia for piano, chorus and orchestra, broke down, due to little rehearsal given to it on its first outing (Beethoven covered all the piano roles on the night). Disregarding the shaky start, the piece was admired for most of the 19th century, only to fall in obscurity later. It’s easily comparable to the slightly similar musical material in the later 9th Symphony. Yet, this ‘Choral Fantasy’ cannot seem to shake of this element of its creation. It’s strange in many respects, not really a concerto, nor a work for choir proper. Here, Williams was back for some final flourishes, the chorus gave their all in the last few minutes, the four soloists (now up with the chorus) continued their musical delights and the orchestra wrapped up things with a mighty burst of grandeur. Maestro Jaime Martín had a lot of energy through the second half and this being his first time with BBC NOW, we would all love to see him back again soon.
Never a chore nor laborious, this huge concert in fact held up as an entirely satisfying tribute to the composer and a testament to that extraordinary night in Vienna. I’m now hungry for even more Beethoven.
A valiant effort from all involved.
Stream or download the concert for up to 30 days after broadcast via BBC Sounds.
The Beethoven 250 celebrations continue around Cardiff in 2020 with performances from Sinfonia Cymru, Ivan Ilić, Joseph Moog, Gabriela Montero, Orchestra of Welsh National and BBC National Orchestra & Chorus of Wales, amongst others.