16 Oct 2017

Was it an Ode to Joy?

From Upbeat, 1:20 pm on 16 October 2017
CSO's 2017 Masterworks series.

CSO's 2017 Masterworks series. Photo: Supplied

Tony Ryan joined the sold out crowd at Wigram Airforce Museum on Saturday for the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra’s Ode to Joy featuring Beethoven’s famous 9th Symphony and his less well known Violin Concerto. How well did it live up to expectations?

Christchurch Symphony Orchestra – Ode to Joy – Saturday 14 October 2017 at the Wigram Airforce Museum

Conductor – Benjamin Northey

Martin Riseley (Violin), Amanda Atlas (soprano), Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo-soprano), Oliver Sewell (tenor), James Clayton (baritone), Christchurch City Choir, Jubilate Singers, UC Consortia, Burnside High School Senior Chorale 

The style of Beethoven performances can vary quite significantly. There’s been so much new scholarship and debate over the last forty years, about how Beethoven’s works, particularly the symphonies, should be played that comparing a highly regarded performance from the 1950s or ’60s with one from today can make performances sound like two quite different works. 

Some of the older generation of Beethoven conductors, even people like Daniel Barenboim, still play the symphonies in a sort of comfortable Grand Manner. But, thankfully, we had nothing of that sort in this concert. Everything was played with lean and fluid commitment.

Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major Op. 61 (1806)

Having said that... although Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is considered the first of the great Romantic violin concertos, I think it’s a mistake to treat it with a sort of Romantic reverence. The best performances treat it as heroic and forthright without too much expressive self-indulgence.

Saturday night’s performance from Martin Riseley tended towards the romantic approach, and that can make the first movement seem rather long. The movement is actually quite long at nearly 25 minutes, but the orchestral tuttis should have a sort of military, march-like feel. The orchestra in this performance was carefully balanced and blended and they certainly played with discipline and refinement; I just found myself wishing for a little more abandon, and we did get that from Mark La Roche on timpani, but a bit more cut-and-thrust from the trumpets, for example, would have also been welcome.

I wouldn’t complain about the basic tempo, which was nicely buoyant. Interestingly though, the programme listed the first movement’s tempo in two places as Allegro con brio, but the marking in the score is Allegro ma non Troppo (not too fast). Beethoven doesn’t indicate a single change of tempo throughout the whole first movement, but Martin Riseley did allow himself a few expressive tenutos. However, I did think these worked well in the context of his overall interpretive approach. And I especially enjoyed his playing of the big cadenza. He used the one written by Kreisler and it can sometimes seem dull because so many famous violinists make it seem all-too-easy, but Martin Riseley highlighted its virtuosity and gave it almost a feel of improvisation which was very impressive.

The second movement was played with sensitivity and elegance – I don’t know what it is about some performances of Beethoven slow movements, but they don’t always grab me, and this one, well, as the lady sitting beside me said, “that was lovely”, and yes it was, but I didn’t find it especially riveting beyond that “lovely”, almost skin-deep level.

In the last movement Martin Riseley allowed himself quite a bit of freedom in his phrasing, and that gave the main theme a real sense of spontaneity. Conductor, Benjamin Northey, maintained a rather four-square approach, but that tended to highlight the soloist’s freer style and brought the movement to life more effectively.

The audience responded enthusiastically to the performance with many standing. For me it was a very well-played interpretation, by both orchestra and soloist, but not really in the standing ovation league.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor Op. 125 (1823-1824)

Every time I hear a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony I’m newly astonished at what a truly extraordinary work it is. And I don’t just mean the great Choral Finale, but the other movements as well. It’s as if Beethoven was living in some sort of heightened parallel universe. And any half decent performance always brings home the staggering originality of the piece, even now, nearly two hundred years after it was written.

Benjamin Northey and the Christchurch Symphony gave us a very modern performance. By that I mean it took account of recent scholarship and was almost right up to Beethoven’s metronome speeds, which were thought, for a long time, to be impossible, even to the extent that people would accuse Beethoven of not understanding how the metronome worked. But, of course, the performance was also on modern instruments, which slightly dilutes the biting articulation that you can get with period instruments. But, again, the timpani stood out, as they should, in the scherzo and the orchestra’s playing was generally full of vitality and polish.

The tempo of the Adagio was spot on, but a little more attention to phrasing might have prevented it sounding a bit rushed in one or two places, especially in the Andante section.

It’s the Finale that really inspires, and this was superbly done on Saturday night. I did wish for a little more energy in the cello and bass recitatives at the start; there seemed to be too little differentiation in Beethoven’s carefully graduated dynamics, but the first statement of the famous big tune had that same lady beside me bouncing her knees and dancing her fingers on her legs.

All four of the solo singers were excellent, although the tenor Oliver Sewell missed his entry in the March episode. He came in correctly in the second bar and all was well, and he did give us some excellent singing. All the soloists projected easily, right to the back of the auditorium, even if soprano Amanda Atlas could be just a bit overbearing at times.

And the choir was absolutely brilliant. Well, it was actually four choirs making a total of over 150 singers. Interestingly, three of the choirs share the same music director, so Susan Densem must be specially congratulated on the quality of the contribution from the choir; alongside John Linker of course and his Christchurch City Choir. But the number of young voices made a huge difference to the sound. The tessitura of the choral parts in this work is very high and the combination of experienced choral singers with so many more youthful members made it sound natural and so joyous as Beethoven intended. When the choir first stood up to sing I thought the lady beside me was going to take off, and the audience response at the end was no less than it should have been.

Generally, Benjamin Northey took Beethoven at his word regarding tempi, but the Finale has a momentum of its own and, given a performance of this level, from both orchestra and choir, it can hardly fail. And I was very glad to be there.

  • Tony Ryan