In line with the increasing international popularity of recreating Beethoven’s somewhat notorious 1808 Vienna concert, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave a performance that well and truly eclipsed the original in terms of technical quality and audience enthusiasm. A feast of some of Beethoven’s most important works, it was an opportunity to be amazed by his genius and wonder what it must have been like to experience this music for the first time.
En route to Hamer Hall, horse-drawn carriages could be seen clip-clopping along St Kilda Road and there was a decided nip in the air; why, one could have almost been in Vienna going to the Theater-an-der-Wien. Except that on December 22, 1808, the Viennese weather was far more brutal than nippy and the hall was unheated. In further contrast, the musicians about to replicate Beethoven’s marathon concert of self-promotion were all of a high calibre, had already played most of the music many times and had been effectively rehearsed.
The only exception to this disparity was the last minute replacement of the still ailing British soprano Susan Gritton with Perth’s Elisa Wilson for the concert aria Ah! Perfido and the Choral Fantasy, and by Jacqueline Porter for the Mass in C. Unlike the last minute soprano replacement for the 1808 concert, they did not shake with what could have been cold or fear or both. Elisa Wilson’s strong, gleaming top notes emphasized the dramatic elements effectively and she conveyed the yearning of the slow, long phrases of the aria with a full, warm tone. Jacqueline Porter’s pure soprano was assured and resonant throughout.
Following the sequence of the original, the concert began with Symphony No. 6: Pastoral. Diego Matheusz presided over a careful, rather subdued reading, but one that rendered some lovely undulating moments of pastoral reverie. It is difficult to understand why such melodic evocations of nature should not have found immediate favour. The concert aria and Gloria from the Mass in C that followed certainly provided the variety that Beethoven had imbedded in order to advertise the scope of his genius.
After a seventy-five-minute interval it was not the conductor who took to the keyboard for Piano Concerto No. 4, but the renowned Turkish pianist, Saleem Ashkar. Again, the emphasis appeared to be on the more delicate end of the dynamic spectrum, but Ashkar’s playing was beautifully controlled and wonderfully fluid. A robust Symphony No. 5 hurtled along and it was easy to see why an audience may well have been shocked to hear music of such strikingly unconventional creativity and passion. Rich cello sound emphasized the majesty of the second movement with the bassoon solo making a most pleasing contribution to the more lyrical sections. The lower strings, again, added much to the emotional power of the final movement.
Forty-five minutes after the conclusion of the symphony, the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir reassembled to join the soloists in a spirited and disciplined performance the Sanctus and Benedictus of the Mass. The hushed opening notes of the choir were beautifully blended and led to a splendid full-voiced “Pleni sunt coeli”. The soloists were well matched, interweaving with the choir in gentle, limpid harmony for the Benedictus.
With the lights lowered and the soloist bathed in a warm glow, singers, orchestra and audience sat in rapt attention for Saleem Ashkar’s performance of the Fantasia for Piano. In this concentrated moment of stillness he turned what is purported to be Beethoven’s transcribed improvisations into a polished work of musical exploration with wonderfully sensitive, crystalline-pure pianism.
Undoubtedly the climax of the evening was the Choral Fantasy. In contrast to the previous work for solo piano, it required the forces of pianist plus full orchestra, choir and six soloists. Joining the two sopranos were mezzo-soprano Fiona Campbell, tenors Henry Choo and Timothy Reynolds, and bass-baritone Christopher Richardson. It was glorious music, with a foretaste of the joyous choral melody of his Ninth Symphony, performed with commitment and skill. The fascinating relationship between the various elements, with Ashkar’s piano in eloquent conversation with the vocal lines, made for a thrilling experience. Singing without scores Andrew Wailes’ RMP Choir excelled themselves in what was a reprise of the MSO’s premiere performance of this great work with the RMP under Joseph Post in 1955. Why it has not been performed by the MSO since 1981 is difficult to fathom.
Although some members of the audience seemed keen to spring to their feet very readily at various points throughout the evening, the standing ovation that greeted the Choral Fantasy involved most of the audience. Of course, the enthusiastic response was also a result of a cumulative effect of a performance that became stronger as it progressed and for a composer whose genius became increasingly awe-inspiring as masterpiece followed masterpiece. Modern recreations of this landmark concert by major orchestras and accomplished artists around the world provide exactly the kind of exposure that Beethoven had gone to such elaborate pains to produce. They now leave audiences marvelling at his achievements.