Friday, 2 January 2009

Beethoven lights up the New Year

The Leipzig Gewandhaus traditional New Year's Eve concert transferred to the Barbican, London, for New Year's Day. Major logistics, shifting a big orchestra, two big choirs, four soloists, choirmaster and conductor ! But it was well worth the effort. This was vivacious, punchy stuff, the perfect antidote to the scary forecasts for the coming year.

As Beethoven said,
"O Freunde, nicht diese Töne ! Sondern lasst uns angeneherme anstimmen und freudenvollere". ie Let's do happy !

This being a New Year Gala, the mink coat brigade were out in force. It's cold between underground car park and cloakroom ! But it was also musically a cause for celebration. Some marriages work better than others, however nice the people involved may be. Chailly and the Leipzigers are a match made in heaven, each inspiring the best in the other, and they are getting better together as time goes by.

It's good to hear Beethoven's 9th as audacious and punchy as this. Once, this was shocking "new music" because it integrated song and symphony, using voices to clarify the meaning in the music. The message was so important to Beethoven that he made sure references to it pop up throughout the symphony even in the abstract voices of the instruments. No one who has heard the final movement can be in any doubt what Beethoven believes – he's saying it over and over. The loose translation in the Barbican booklet puts it well. "Let thy magic bring together all whom earth-born laws divide". It's as relevant today as it was in 1823.

Snippets of the melody in the finale bubble up irrepressibly throughout the symphony, even in the gloom of the first movement. By highlighting the instrumental detail, Chailly shows how Beethoven moves from solo to tutti, from individual to community. He puts the trumpets up on their own, even above the timpani. So two small instruments make sounds that soar out over the tumult, heralding change to come.

Also interesting is the way this approach brings out the character of the small instrumental groups – the double basses, the flutes, the winds. Each is distinctive, like a voice without words – a parallel to the way voices are used as instruments in the last, gorgeous movement. Even then, the trombones operate on their own, reminding us that even in large groups, individual liberty must never be lost. Fabulously muscular, assertive playing .

Outstanding was Hanno M
üller-Brachmann, the baritone. Watch this guy, he really is good. I first heard him in Mahler's 8th in Berlin with Boulez, where I was seated so far from the male voices that his was the only one to stand out. Listen to the recording where the balance is good. He's still outstanding, and you hear the nuance in his voice. He's doing a Lieder recital on the 8th (Elvis's birthday) at the Wigmore Hall. Pianist is Andras Schiff which shows how well young Hanno is regarded. He is a hunk, too, with dimples even.

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