Between 1800 and 1808 Ludwig van Beethoven composed six of his nine symphonies. Seventh Y Eighth they would be born stepping on their heels, in just a year and a half, from the autumn of 1811 to the spring of 1813. Then it would be more than a decade until, in 1824, it was completed and premiered in Vienna, like the previous ones, the most famous of all of them, the Ninth, pioneer in the introduction of human voices in the last movement and “the magnificent vault of heaven” that crowns the entire Beethovenian symphonic building. Since the death of the composer, the ensemble was perceived as one of the first artistic achievements of the human spirit. Despite having dedicated a very modest number of works to the genre compared to the figures reached by its two great predecessors – Haydn, which exceeded a hundred, and Mozart, who crossed the quarantine -, Beethoven managed to leave a much deeper and more bequeathed with it an unavoidable reference for his successors, dazzled while, as would happen to Brahms, paralyzed by his feat. Offering the cycle in its entirety, in rigorous chronological order, compressed in a few days, as the Philharmonic in Vienna directed by Andris Nelsons is doing this week at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, also has a lot of symbolic, interpretative deed , from opera omnia.
Small details individualize Haydn and Mozart’s symphonies, but ultimately they all refer in some way to a common model, which makes them a kind of great variations – or variants – on the same theme, or a similar pattern. With Beethoven, however, this changes radically, because the subject is never repeated and is in permanent metamorphosis. This translates into the fact that each symphony has its own, unmistakable, unique personality, and each of them in turn becomes an increasingly advanced stage within what could almost be described as a great symphonic teleology project: its nine deliveries ultimately point to the choral end of the Ninth, imbued as no other previous or later symphony of the ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity advocated by the French Revolution is. Beethoven had been stroking the idea of putting music to the ode To the joy Schiller since at least 1793 (his friend Bartholomäus Fischenich confessed in a letter addressed to Charlotte, the writer’s wife), but the idea would not come true, as an end of the trip, until two decades later. The fruit had to continue to ripen on the tree before it could fulfill its crucial universal task.
The modern, stable, professional orchestra, technically solvent in all its sections, is also born as an imperative need to be able to do sound justice to Beethoven’s symphonies. He himself lacked this privilege in Vienna of his time and must have painfully noted that the tremendous demands of his music could not be met by a handful of recruited instrumentalists ad hoc from here and there. It is not simply that the orchestra grows in size. Between the first two symphonies and the “Heroic”For example, the only change is the incorporation of a third tube. But after the two resounding initial chords (which Wilhelm von Lenz defined as “two heavy artillery charges that split an orchestra in two like a turnip”), the music is entirely different, not only for its formal ambition (with its nothing less that 691 bars, for example, the first movement amply doubles its counterparts from the two previous works), but by its own compositional philosophy, apparently encouraged to translate the greatness, ambition and fierce territorial expansionism of its former dedication into sounds Napoleon Bonaparte. That is why it may not be far fetched to take advantage of von Lenz’s military metaphor and think of the Beethovenian orchestra as a modern professional army, perfectly equipped and trained to be able to carry out its mission, prepared to shoot (those infinites sforzandi or accents in weak parts that proliferate in movements like the last of the Fifth Symphony) anytime. We are not startled or bewildered, but to the listeners of their time, and in a city still as little symphonic as Vienna, these works plunged them into bewilderment, as reflected in the criticisms and testimonies of the time. In Spain, reception was delayed and washed away, as Juan José Carreras has studied very well.
Since its very birth, the Vienna Philharmonic has been closely linked to the interpretation of the Beethovenian symphonic corpus, as they recalled in a joint conference before Tuesday’s first concert in the small hall of the Elbphilharmonie responsible for the historical archive of the orchestra, Silvia Kargl, and Friedemann Pestel, Professor of History at the University of Freiburg. She explained the main milestones of the nineteenth century, while he reviewed those of the XX and what we have of the XXI. Kargl recalled, for example, how several of the founding musicians of the orchestra already worked in the orchestra of the Opera of the Court at the time of Beethoven, in addition to influencing the direct line that can be drawn in certain lecterns throughout its entire history (specifically referred to bassoon soloists) or instruments that are owned by the orchestra and have been playing continuously since then. Beethoven’s music played at his founding concert in 1842 (the Seventh Symphony and the aria Ah! Perfidious) and throughout the nineteenth century the Viennese philharmonics also had close contact with the descendants of Beethoven. Pestel briefly recalled the complete cycles offered with directors such as Felix Weingartner (in 1918), Wilhelm Furtwängler (1948, in London), Carl Schuricht (1956, in Lyon) or the most recent of Claudio Abbado (1987, in New York, Tokyo and Paris), 2002 (Rattle, the first with the presence of women in the orchestra) and 2006 (Thielemann).
If, before entering the Elbphilharmonie, someone who was not in their right mind could have some doubt about the suitability of the Vienna Philharmonic to face a comprehensive Beethovenian symphony, the overwhelming data recorded in this conference prior to the first concert had to dissipate them by full. This tour has started last week in Paris, will continue until Saturday in Hamburg and will conclude in Munich, the only three European cities that will have the privilege of listening to the nine symphonies in four concerts. There will be individual concerts in Baden-Baden and Cologne this month, with the Musikverein in Vienna, where else, as the setting for a new full cycle at the end of May and beginning of June. If the coronavirus does not prevent it, Asia and North America will also host the full cycle after summer.
The privilege of occupying the podium in all these concerts has been granted to Andris Nelsons, with whom the Viennese have already ratified, with half a world as a witness, their excellent tuning in the New Year’s Concert last January 1. The Latvian conductor has merit for this, since he undoubtedly tops the ranks within his generation (and nearby) and is disputed by all the great orchestras in the world, including the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, which would be happy if he agreed to take up the position already long vacant of titular director. Nelsons has opted for a section of nourished string (12/14/10/8/6), which knows how to sound like a string quartet if necessary, or as a powerful and compact block capable of elbowing evenly with wood and metal And, contrary to what happened to Antonio Pappano at the premiere last Sunday of a new production of Fidelio at the Royal Opera House, from the initial chord of the First Symphony (far from the tonic, a first cry of rebellion of the young Beethoven) until the last of the Fifth (Yes, in a resounding C major), Nelsons knows very well how to get Beethoven to sound like Beethoven, and the statement is far from being a tautology, because directors who have crashed into the Beethovenian wall are legion. Let the orchestra play, which also knows the secret, but does not leave a single moment to direct it. His gestures are never authoritarian or ostentatious, but plastic, delicate, minimal or overwhelmingly graphic, as when, shortly after the restatement of the first movement of the “Heroic”, drew a long crescendo bending down before then straighten up little by little and continue ascending to the top by raising your arm more and more towards the sky, or when, in the last movement of the Quarter, to enhance the constant setbacks between cello and double basses, on the one hand, and the rest of the orchestra, on the other, hid the baton under his arm and, while smiling, he alternately threw his fists as if he were boxing. Nothing seems cooked in advance because, when the exposure of a movement is repeated, or the first section of a minuet or unscherzo, the gestures change. Without dictatorial bias, Nelsons gets the orchestra to do exactly what he wants.
In the inaugural concert he was getting better and better communicating with his musicians and getting the generous acoustics of the Elbphilharmonie to give us an elegant First, an incandescent Second (It is rare to hear her so exceptionally well directed and with such a strong personality) and a “Heroic” truly miraculous, significantly superior to the version he recorded with the same orchestra less than a year ago in Vienna for his integral published by Deutsche Grammophon. The funeral march, loading the inks strictly as necessary, had a marked metaphysical and timeless air, to Furtwängler, and the double basses, finally separated from the yoke that ties them to the cello, sounded more ominous and necessary than ever. The section escaped, like all other imitative contrapuntal passages (as in the slow movement of the First, the third of the Fifth or the Allegro with brio of one’s own Third), was a prodigy of transparency, a virtue always present in any dynamics.
Nelsons is also interested in harmony, and much, and takes great care of the planning of voices that generate dissonances or recover consonances. He showed it especially at Wednesday’s concert throughout a luminous interpretation of the Quarter started with the best slow introduction that is remembered, with a prodigious handling of the woods, always seconded by the formidable Viennese soloists (the oboist Clemens Horak, the clarinetist Matthias Schorn, the bassoon Sophie Dervaux), as planning and resolution is always wonderful of tensions, both when they are the result of pure harmonic processes and when – one of the main signs of Beethovenian identity – arise as a result of progressive rhythmic compression. The master lesson in this regard came in the Fifth, with a first granite movement, intense and seamless from beginning to end. The incorporation of three trombones and a counterfagot in the last movement served to crown this second concert with strong omens of the music of the future.
Nelsons never loaded the inks or fell into the easy resource to exaggerate tempi or dynamic His Beethoven is, above all, compact, energetic, vital, logical, permeated at all times with an air of inevitability: it must be like that. And since the Elbphilharmonie resembles the bow of a ship floating in the middle of the port of Hamburg, another simile very suitable to describe the versions of the five symphonies heard in these first two concerts is that of fluidity: the music always advances as if it were sliding on the water, without ceaselessness, without abruptness, no matter if there are waves – small or large – or that the sea is calm. In the end, Nelsons always greets fleetingly at the level of the musicians, mixed with them, never on the podium, never alone, without giving the slightest importance, and repeatedly shakes hands with the two concert performers (Volkhard Steude and Albena Danailova) in each new stage so that no one doubts who has made possible what has just sounded. He gives them all the merit and prominence, encouraged by what seems to be both modesty and genuine admiration, at the opposite extreme, for example, of a Theodor Currentzis, who runs today in Madrid and whose ego always occupies the foreground. After the last chord, it would be Nelsons himself who would mix willingly with the audience and applaud as the one that most portentous instrumentalists, who do good to a greater extent perhaps than any other orchestra that the whole can be much higher than the sum of the parts. One by one they are very good, who doubts it, but it is the interaction between them that works the miracle, that brings out the best in each one. The Latvian director knows and encourages him, giving them freedom but without ceasing to clearly delimit the playing field, just as he also knows who has the last word: “My work ends where Beethoven begins.”
The Elbphilharmonie has become the main tourist attraction of Hamburg and both the hall itself (organizer of the first concert) and the private agency ProArte (responsible for the remaining three) have made a great gift to the hamburgers, and many visitors from abroad , to host these four concerts on the banks of the Elbe. In full international frenzy to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, few can present more attractive credentials, solvent and backed by history than the Viennese philharmonics. His first two concerts in Hamburg, by the hand of that exceptional musician who is Andris Nelsons, have met the highest expectations.