Beethoven: 1808 Reconstructed

Beethoven: 1808 Reconstructed
Philharmonia Orchestra
Philharmonia Voices, Rodolfus Choir
Esa-Pekka Salonen, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Stephen Fry
Royal Festival Hall, 15 March 2020

Symphony 6 (Pastoral); Ah! perfido, Op.65; Gloria from Mass in C; Piano Concerto 4; Symphony 5; Sanctus & Benedictus from Mass in C; Fantasia in G minor for piano, Op.77; ‘Choral Fantasy’ in C minor for piano, chorus & orchestra, Op.80

In the first of his several pop-up moments, the genial compere Stephen Fry announced that this was probably “the last mass gathering there will be at for some time”. The empty seats in what was an almost sold-out concert reflected the sorry story, as did the Government announcements the following day. But this day was Beethoven’s, with the Philharmonia Orchestra‘s recreation of Beethoven’s famous 1808 ‘Akademie’ concert. Given just a few days before Christmas at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, the original concert consisted entirely of the works of the one composer. It included the first performances of several major works, including the 5th & 6thSymphonies, the 4th Piano Concerto and the hastily put-together Choral Fantasy.

The heating in the Theater an der Wien failed, leaving the audience in the bitter cold for around four hours in the evening. Although that length was not unusual for concerts in Vienna at the time, the fact that so many  new works were performance was new., as was the dedication to just one composer. The event itself was far from successful, with many mishaps before and on the day. Beethoven had a grump with the booked soprano soloist for the Concert Aria Ah! perfido so she walked out, leaving a 17-year old to take over. When it came to it, the under-rehearsed teenager got stage fright and made a bit of a mess of things. More dramatically, the concluding Choral Fantasy, the ink barely dry on the page and with large amounts left for Beethoven to improvise, fell apart, apparently because of confusion with a repeat, leading Beethoven to start it all over again.

In between the pieces of this very much more successful performance, Stephen Fry regaled us with extracts from diaries and review of the original performance, many hilarious. The opening Pastoral Symphony set a very high bar for performance standards, the orchestra on particularly strong form at the start of what was to be a long afternoon. All obviously playing modern, rather than period instruments (with the noble exception of the trumpeters), they nonetheless managed to produced a clean and focussed sound, with minimal string vibrato and an appropriate sense of phrasing and articulation producing clarity in the RFH’s acoustics.

Esa-Pekka Salonen kept the pace at an appropriately brisk speed whilst exploring detailed articulation and instrumental colour. Like the rest of the programme, it really emphasised the importance of hearing music live, rather than through other media. Little details of the orchestration that I hadn’t noticed before became apparent. Esa-Pekka Salonen was particularly effective at the many link passages in this, and the 5th Symphony, carefully controlling the Rossini-like crescendos that bring so much drama to Beethoven/s music. The movements of the 5th Symphony were each colour-coded with some imaginative lighting by Rick Fisher.

Throughout the afternoon I was very impressed with several members of the orchestra, particularly the principal woodwind players: Samuel Coles, flute, Tom Blomfield, oboe, Mark van de Wiel, clarinet, and Emily Hultmark, bassoon. The leader, violinist Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, also impressed both as an occasional soloist but also for the leadership of the orchestra, clearly reflecting Esa-Pekka Salonen’s directions to his colleagues.

The star soloist, and Beethoven ‘double, was pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a late stand-in for Andreas Haefliger. His performance of the 4th Piano Concerto, the Fantasia in G minor (standing in for Beethoven’s improvised Fantasia) and the Choral Fantasy, although played on the inevitable concert grand, had something of the delicacy of touch and clarity of articulation that Beethoven’s fortepiano would have had.

Soprano Golda Schultz excelled in Ah! perfido and in the Chorale Fantasy, as did the combined forces of the Philharmonia Voices and Rodolfus Choir. Although the orchestra was considerably larger than that used for the original performance, the sound and volume matched the RFH acoustics well. Apart from it not being a period-instrument orchestra, my only question is whether the Theater an der Wien had an organ at the time of the 1808 Akademie. The RFH organ was used in the Mass sections, giving a well-controlled but audible sense of foundation to the orchestral and choral forces. I don’t know if an organ is mentioned in the score, but no matter.
[Edit: I’m told that the first printed edition does include an organ, complete with figured bass]

Amongst Stephen Fry’s contemporary comments were some gems, including Reichardt’s comment after hearing the Fifth Symphony “Another symphony… absurdly elaborate, and much too long”. In contrast, ETA Hoffmann commented that the Fifth Symphony had changed the world.

The Choral Fantasy for piano, choir and orchestra, although not Beethoven’s finest work Fantasy, was a fitting conclusion to the original, and this concert. The links with the not-yes-composed 9th Symphony became increasingly apparent as the piece ran its rather anarchic course. The text reflects “the profound pleasure of music” and includes the words –

When music’s enchantment reigns …
Beauty takes form;
Night and storms turn into light

A fitting conclusion to what will probably be the last concert review I will post for some time. In the video link below, Esa-Pekka Salonen talks about the performance