Scottish Chamber Orchestra/John Storgårds

Beethoven: Music from The Ruins of Athens and Symphony No 9

11 May 2012 5 stars

Robin Ticciati

Although he met with little success in the opera house, there is quite a substantial body of work for the theatre in Beethoven’s catalogue. Most of the time, all we hear in the concert-hall are the overtures, but the SCO’s choral season finale presented a welcome opportunity to take a look at one of those entries, his music for Kotzebue’s play The Ruins of Athens.

I overheard a couple of neighbours exchanging a remark about the topical irony of a German playwright tackling the subject of ruining Athens; it turns out that the author was assassinated in 1819, apparently having expressed reactionary sentiments, which on the face of it would make him an odd collaborator for the liberally-inclined Beethoven. Indeed, tonight’s concert foreshadows an important thematic strand in the SCO’s next season, which will be looking at early romanticism in greater detail, with Beethoven, Janus-like, facing both ways and bearing a political charge in both directions.

What’s intriguing about the score is the way that it contributes to a long and evolving tradition within the classical sphere of music composed for a subordinate role. It makes for an uneasy situation because composers are hired because they write well, and yet they are required to efface their personality in the service of the greater whole. The Takemitsu film music performed last October illustrates the point well. Tonight, what stood out was the Chor der Derwische, a quite un-Beethoven-like episode of driving fury. It wasn’t the energy, of itself, that seemed un-Beethoven, and it is hard to say what it was like – Gluck on crystal meth, perhaps (thinking of the descent into Hades in Orfeo), but for sure it was a thrilling high point, overshadowing the more familiar Marcia alla Turca, which itself is almost Johann-Strauss=like in its light Viennese way.

Frankly, these items overshadow the overture; it is telling that Beethoven composed The Consecration of the House to take its place when the play was revived in Vienna some years after its premiere in Pest. Nevertheless, John Storgårds brought out an intense and impassioned performance from orchestra and choir, sending the audience to the interval with a buzz of anticipation for the second half.

For many years the reference recording of Beethoven’s ninth symphony was Otto Klemperer’s: ponderously slow, but majestic in the architecture of its span. In his hands, Beethoven had reverted to the archaic sonata da chiesa form, with the slow and sombre first movement. (With the scherzo being placed second, this isn’t too ridiculous an idea.) More recently the fashion has been to take the opening allegro at a ‘normal’ first movement speed, a little like the restoration of Rembrandt’s ‘Night watch’, which turned out to be daylit after all. Denève’s recklessly fast tempo last year was pushing the envelope away from Beethoven’s ‘ma non troppo’ qualification; Storgårds went radically in the opposite direction, not only ‘non troppo’ but ‘poco maestoso’ too, as the composer directed.

Having complained frequently about conductors taking Beethoven too fast, I’m not about to complain about this one being too slow, but it is legitimate to register a measure of surprise all the same. It proved to be the first act in an excellent, austere and poetically-shaped reading, with the conductor receiving an impassioned but disciplined response from orchestra and choir. The trio of the second movement prompted the thought that Storgårds felt obliged to demonstrate that he could do recklessly fast if he wanted to, but again the score’s ‘presto’ marking supported his interpretation.

The way he organized the finale was a little different, too. A tuning break between the second and third movements allowed the soloists to take the stage for the first time, but seated at the wings. Only when called upon to sing did they move to the centre, with Jan Martiník timing his walk, turn, and delivery of the opening declamation to perfection. Behind them, the choir sang from memory. Since everyone else had scores or parts in front of them this seemed a trifle unfair, but the impressive result – at one point swamping tenor Paul Nilon with a deluge of sound like some unfortunate silent movie actor caught in a sight gag.

At the conclusion there was the kind of tumultuous ending that you expect to be met with cheers, and so it was, with a special round reserved for the chorus when their chorusmaster Gregory Batsleer took the stage. All in all, a rousing ending to another fine SCO season.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Marco Borggreve


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