Sunday, 7 September 2014

Postcard from Perth 32

WASO Beethoven Festival

Beethoven’s symphonies were the gateway to classical music for me when I was a teenager. A friend and I shared a passion for them; between the two of us, our parents (his mother and my father, to be precise) owned most of them on vinyl (the early 60s Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic cycle on Deutsche Gramophone, as it happened, with big black-and-white photos on the sleeve-covers of Herbert himself conducting in a black skivvy with his silver mane swept back and his eyes closed) and we listened to them together obsessively. Then one evening around 1978 we went to hear the Warsaw Philharmonic play the Eroica in the Melbourne Town Hall. I’ll never forget gazing up at the town hall organ pipes during the majestic fugal development section in the second movement Funeral March. Afterwards we strode through the streets of the city and felt like we were walking on air.

I felt something of the same excitement over the last couple of weekends going to the WASO Beethoven Festival at the Perth Concert Hall: all nine symphonies performed in four separate concerts on Friday and Saturday nights (with one concert each week repeated on Sundays). It’s been a signature venture initiated by the orchestra’s new chief conductor, Asher Fisch, and I (along with hundreds of others) couldn’t resist checking it out. Beethoven himself provided the precedent for this kind of event with the blockbuster concerts in Vienna at which he often premiered several new large-scale works, typically one or two symphonies and a piano concerto. These were highly lucrative events for which Beethoven could charge three times the normal rate and still play to packed houses; as composer, conductor and soloist (at least until his deafness supervened), he was to all intents and purposes the rock-star of his day. There’s no denying that Fisch has acquired something of this rock-star status himself since he took over the helm at WASO, and both orchestra and audiences seem to be responding to his vigorous style of leadership with enthusiasm.

In addition to the obvious attraction of hearing arguably the most significant symphonic cycle in the repertoire performed more or less in sequence – and served ‘neat’, so to speak, rather than ‘mixed’ with extraneous works by other composers – there’s the added interest of hearing a single conductor’s interpretation of the entire cycle in collaboration with his own chosen orchestra. In fact one of the stated goals of the exercise (publicly acknowledged by Fisch himself) was to put WASO through its paces and embark on a thoroughgoing renovation under his baton in order to achieve a new, improved and distinctive sound. Beethoven’s symphonies are the ideal vehicle for this, because they mark a decisive revolution in the history of orchestral music, as well as an unmistakable evolution in terms of the development of the composer himself, from the ‘early’ period (still heavily influenced by Haydn and Mozart) through the ‘middle’ or ‘heroic’ period (initiated by the Eroica Symphony) to the ‘late’ style of the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis and the final piano sonatas and string quartets. As such, they represent a unique musical journey for listeners and players alike.

There’s something about an event like this that makes you feel part of a communal experience. Perhaps this feeling is even stronger in a small, remote and isolated city like Perth, which nonetheless has a proud classical music scene and boasts arguably the best concert hall in the country. The term ‘festival’ is apt here because such an event is indeed an aesthetic ‘feast’ or celebration for the mind and senses. And who better than Beethoven to provide it with focus and substance, as the composer who perhaps more than anyone articulated that sense of longing for union (physical, emotional, political and spiritual) which is inherent in the ideal of a collectively liberated humanity – an ideal incomparably expressed in aesthetic form in his symphonies, concertos, quartets and sonatas. Perhaps more than any other artist, Beethoven uniquely embodies this longing for union in his life and work, in an almost mythically Promethean struggle with the forms and materials he inherited, including his own deafness and personality; his commoner status (which precluded marriage to the aristocratic women he fell in love with); the period of enlightenment, revolution and reaction he lived through; and the musical legacy of Viennese Classicism brought to perfection by Haydn and Mozart which he fulfilled and transformed into something more fully emancipated that would lead to the more deeply subjective Romanticism of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg and beyond. In the realm of art, one might look back to Michelangelo almost three centuries earlier, and in the field of literature, forward to Tolstoy half a century later, to find two similarly titanic figures grappling with the personal and cultural contradictions of their own very different times, places and personalities. Perhaps it’s this sense of titanic struggle – together with at least the promise of some kind of victory or resolution – that makes such artists so uniquely compelling for those of us who find ourselves drawn to their work and aren’t put off by its occasional tendency towards bombast or self-importance.

In any event, a Beethoven cycle attracts all sorts, and not just classical music geeks. I was surprised to bump into a theatre colleague I never see at WASO concerts, who told me he was there that night for the Pastoral, that much-loved inaugural work of programme music that celebrates the joys of getting out of town and away from it all (in Beethoven’s case, out of Vienna and into the surrounding Austrian countryside, but in this context one might equally think of getting out of Perth and heading down south); whereas I was primarily anticipating the abstract Dionysian ecstasies of my own personal favourite, the Seventh (which Wagner dubbed ‘the apotheosis of the dance’ and other colleagues like Weber saw as indisputable evidence that Beethoven was now ‘ripe for the madhouse’).

Highlights for me in this Festival included (in no particular order): the less commonly heard First and Second Symphonies, in which Beethoven’s voice already unmistakably asserts itself despite the obvious formal debt to Haydn and Mozart; thrilling renditions of the Fifth and Seventh (the galloping rhythms of the latter bringing the audience to its feet at the end, despite the conspicuous collapse of an elderly patron in the choir stalls during the last movement); and a rousing performance of the Ninth featuring a heartfelt (and conspicuously learnt-by-heart) contribution from the WASO Chorus, and notably distinguished solo singing from baritone James Clayton (who was also outstanding as Iago in the WA Opera Otello earlier this year).  Special mention should also be made of solo passages throughout the symphonies by principal oboist Peter Facer (especially in the Eroica); principal flautist Andrew Nicholson; principal clarinettist Allan Meyer; and sterling contributions from the horns (especially in the Third and Fifth) and timpani (above all in the rambunctious dance movements of the Seventh and Ninth). But perhaps the most striking sense of a ‘new sound’ from the orchestra to emerge under Fisch’s baton came from the strings: a more gutsy, biting sense of attack (noticeably in the generally more dramatic odd-numbered symphonies) and a more richly cohesive, song-like tone (particularly in the more profound slow movements of the same symphonies). As for Fisch’s overall take on Beethoven: I would describe it as broadly in the grand Central European Romantic tradition – with perhaps more of the athleticism of Toscanini, Karajan or Kleiber than the spirituality of Furtwängler, Klemperer or Jochum – and perhaps something of the influence of more recent original instrument conductors like Norrington or Gardiner audible here and there in the use of swifter tempi or more transparent voicing of parts. More particularly, I found myself hearing (especially from the strings) a darker Beethoven, a wellspring of sorrow, pain and even rage, that made the summits of joy, lightness and celebration all the more precious for being hard-won.

All in all, a deeply satisfying experience. Towards the end, as we took our familiar seats, said hello to our neighbours, and prepared for the final ascent of the Ninth, I found myself thinking: what about giving us a similarly compact Brahms cycle next year, or a Sibelius cycle – or even (perhaps a more long-term undertaking) a Bruckner or Mahler cycle? And then, as if on cue, Janet Holmes à Court, as chair of the WASO board, took the stage before the concert began, to announce next year’s season: its centrepiece a Brahms Festival, featuring all four symphonies conducted by Fisch, plus the Violin Concerto with Pinchas Zukerman and both mighty Piano Concertos with Garrick Ohlsson. I booked my subscription the next day. Sometimes Perth doesn’t feel so small, remote or isolated after all.


WASO conducted by Ascher Fish performed Beethoven’s 1st, 2nd and 5th Symphonies on Fri 22 and Sun 24 August; the 4th and 5th Symphonies on Sat 23 August; the 6th and 7th Symphonies on Fri 29 August; and the 8th and 9th on Sat 30 and Sun 31st August.

Next year, they’ll be playing the Brahms 1st Symphony and the Violin Concerto with Pinchas Zukerman on Fri 21 August 2015; the 2nd Symphony and Double Concerto with Zukerman and his wife Amanda Forsythe on Sat 22; the 3rd Symphony and 1st Piano Concerto with Garrick Ohlsson on Fri 28th August; and the 4th Symphony and 2nd Piano Concerto on Sat 29th August.

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