Beethoven – Music from Die Ruinen von Athen
Beethoven – Symphony No. 9.
Elizabeth Watts (sop), Julia Riley (mez), Paul Nilon (ten), Jan Martiník (bass)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus (prepared by Gregory Batsleer)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra / John Storgårds.
Usher Hall, Edinburgh. Thursday, May 10th, 2012.
Tonight was my first visit to the Usher Hall and I found it a really beautiful hall. I believe that it has been refurbished recently and it looks really classy. Acoustically it seems to add a lot of air around the sound but that could be because my seat was very close to the stage and the players were effectively playing over my head. Tonight was also the first time that I have had the pleasure of hearing the Scottish Chamber Orchestra live and they did not disappoint. The SCO with Mackerras has been one of my two most frequently played Beethoven cycles of recent years – the other is Anima Eterna with Van Immerseel – and although they don’t actually play the 9th on that Mackerras set, I was eager to hear them in the work. So I made the journey up to Edinburgh on a horrifically rainy day to hear them.
The first half was given over to a selection of the incidental music from Die Ruinen von Athen. Truth is that with the exception of the overture, this isn’t really top-drawer Beethoven. The orchestral playing immediately drew attention for its clear-cut textures, vibrato-free strings and raspy brass (they were playing modern instruments incidentally). Sadly, I found the choral singing rather tentative and pitch wasn’t entirely uniform especially amongst the sopranos – Beethoven was as cruel in this piece as he was in his other works towards them. Still, it passed the time nicely enough although I don’t really feel an urgent need to listen to it again, it was good to hear it.
The real meat was saved for the second half. Often, I hear performances of the ninth where somehow the finale can seem like a disappointment after the cogently argued three first movements. Tonight was completely the opposite. I felt that the first three movements lacked interest whereas the finale was thrillingly barnstorming.
The last Beethoven 9 I heard live was Chailly’s with the Gewandhaus at the Barbican. There he used a big band with wonderfully swift tempi. Here we had the opposite, a small band with more measured tempi. I don’t think it quite worked. The orchestral playing itself was superb but in a way, they lacked the sheer heft of sound to be able to carry such a weighty interpretation. The first movement was taken in a measured way and was distinguished by some characterful wind playing. The second was quite swift with some terrific trombone playing. The third was taken extremely slowly – not quite Bernstein slow but getting there. I found that Storgårds completely missed the cantabile inherent in this movement – it was beautifully played for sure but it didn’t soar nor did it sing.
The finale however seemed to belong to a completely different interpretation. The opening brass fanfares were wonderfully urgent but it was at the appearance of the ‘joy’ theme that it took on wings. Whether it was the phrasing or whether it was something else, the performance just seemed to take off. From there on in, it was splendid. The chorus, who had been extremely tentative in the first half, now seemed to glow with confidence. They sang fearlessly, from memory, and gave everything they had to the piece. Yes one could gripe that they could have done with a language coach but it was such an uplifting performance that it took the whole piece to a different league. They were joined by a well-matched team of soloists – Jan Martiník’s bass stood out but Elizabeth Watts’ soprano was in a class of her own. She sang flawlessly making light work of the awkward tessitura. Following her Susanna for WNO, she is rapidly becoming one of my favourite singers. The orchestral playing was first class and the closing pages glowed wonderfully.
This was not as groundbreaking and life-changing as Chailly’s interpretation was but it was a superb performance by a top-class orchestra and chorus. I would certainly head up to Edinburgh to hear them again, they really are an outstanding band.