The final movement of Beethoven’s 9th and last symphony features four soloists and a choir, the first time these devices had been used by a major composer in such a work.
At its first public performance in Vienna in 1824, the work received multiple standing ovations, with the profoundly deaf composer, on-stage as the general director of the performance, having to be turned around to see and accept the audience’s approval. But over the years it has had to fight hard for critical recognition.
These days it is uniformly well received, with the melody of Ode to Joy, chosen as the Anthem for Europe in 1972, and most notably played in Berlin at Christmas 1989 just after the demolition of the Wall, being instantly familiar, even if the words don’t trip off the tongue.
But this groundbreaking symphony has made its own rules, in a battle royal between the existing Classical and the new Romantic composition styles.
Of its four very distinctive movements, the first is restless, unsettled, and even disjointed with much use of timpani to carry it forward, but then gives way to an exhilarating, merry and mischievously menacing scherzo. The slower section comes unusually after this, with an opening as sweet as could be asked for, and continuing with a soft, end-of-season feel, laying a totally false trail for what is to come, which is prefaced by a discordant orchestral thunderclap.
The final movement’s theme is eventually started on the double basses, and builds into familiar territory, with the singers then propelled into the action.
At around 70 minutes, it is a long and physically demanding work. Conductor Nicholas McGegan was careful to ensure proper, brow-wiping breaks between the movements, this helping to rack up the tension as the finale approached.
The Chorus of Northern Sinfonia rose to the occasion perfectly, sounding fresh and vital after the long wait they have to endure for their entry, to sing the composer’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem An die Freude (Ode to Joy).
There have been many larger numbers of singers in other productions, but the sound balance with the orchestra was spot on, and the four soloists held their own well against the forces behind them.
The spontaneous standing ovation was to be expected, and played tribute not just to the intensity of the group and individual performances, but also as a celebration of a compelling art form.
The four commendable soloists, soprano Elizabeth Atherton, mezzo Diana Moore, tenor Robin Tritschler – a late replacement for the indisposed Ben Johnson in the Beethoven – and baritone David Wilson-Johnson, were perfectly matched and suited. There was delightfully expressive interplay between Atherton and Wilson-Johnson, particularly in the final song from the evening’s opening work, a selection from Gustav Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn).
Moore provided the highlight, with an endearing performance of the Little Rhine Legend about lost love and a gold ring being thrown into the river, only to show up on her sweetheart’s dinner table inside a fish. The equally endearing translations from the German in the concert programme, only added to the delight of these songs.
Beethoven 2 is next in Royal Northern Sinfonia’s year-long cycle of his symphonies, being performed at Sage Gateshead on Thursday April 30, at 7.30pm.