Three brilliant bursts of ‘living’ Beethoven

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Richard Tognetti and ACO. Photo: Nic Walker

Music / “Beethoven 1, 2 & 3”. Australian Chamber Orchestra. At Llewellyn Hall, February 8. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE

MOZART wrote 41 of them. Haydn wrote 104. And Beethoven admired both composers. But his nine symphonies were game-changers – “pillars”, as the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s director, Richard Tognetti, describes them. 

Peter Craven, in his excellent and extensive program notes for this concert, says Beethoven (2020 is the 250th anniversary of his birth) is “the greatest Romantic who ever lived, and a composer of such grandeur that he freezes the soul of any successor.”

But Beethoven is so familiar, one might be forgiven for wondering, “why go to yet another Beethoven concert?” The answer is simple. After more than two centuries, Beethoven’s music remains open to interpretation. 

Tognetti says: “Unless you violate the score through interpretation, you’re not allowing the music to live.”

Tognetti’s interpretation, and the ACO’s performance, of Beethoven’s first three symphonies certainly lived up to that philosophy.

The first symphony is Tognetti’s favourite. Premiering in 1800 (the composer was 30 and his deafness was getting serious), its lightness and obvious nod to Haydn, especially in the stately second movement, make it very listenable. Strangely though, the ACO didn’t seem entirely comfortable with it, especially at the start, with some imbalance of sound and tiny bits of scrappy timing. But it wasn’t long before the ensemble hit its straps, and by the fourth movement, rollicked along at a gallop with brilliant precision.

Two years on, and Beethoven is finding his own sound in the second symphony. There are still the influences of Haydn and Mozart, but now, with its strong emphatic start, we are hearing the transition from the Classical to the Romantic era. Tognetti’s band was amazing in this work, especially in the second movement. Marked “Larghetto” it was a delicate, gentle folk dance, the audience audibly breathing a “hmmm” of approval at the end. Once again, the finale galloped along apace, the orchestra handling it superbly.

Beethoven’s third symphony “Eroica” (Heroic) premiered in 1805. He intended to dedicate it to Napoleon; he thought him a great and heroic man of the people. But when Napoleon decided to be emperor, Beethoven was outraged. He tore the front page from the score, ripped it in half, and then scratched out Napoleon’s name from the dedication page so violently it left a hole.

By now, Beethoven’s voice of the Romantic era was unmistakable. His 3rd is a grand work of monumental proportions, lasting around 45 minutes. It leaves the listener in no doubt that Beethoven has at last found his sound, even though deafness was advancing inexorably.

The ACO was vibrant and energetic throughout this piece. Their inspiring playing was the kind that puts the audience on the edge of the seat, almost forgetting to breathe. A very long and extended ovation from this capacity audience saw Tognetti shaking hands with the young musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music, who augmented the orchestra for this performance, and orchestra members hugging in mutual admiration.

In the hands of the ACO and with Tognetti’s interpretation, the familiar became new and the music, indeed, lived.

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