The RCO's format for their free Beethoven Sessions live-streamed concerts, each devoted to a single work, were like 10-inch vinyl in the 1950s. They allowed you to afford both the money and the time to listen to one entire symphony, concerto or chamber music work that made up what was the core classical music repertory in those days. The performers ranged as they do today, led by the members and friends of our great orchestras. In those days the orchestras were reforming themselves after the War. Today they are fighting for survival. The Covid as the constant landscape against which all these performances play out brings a heightened tension that might otherwise not be there.

Ronald Brautigam © Het Concertgebouw
Ronald Brautigam
© Het Concertgebouw

Three performances stood out. Ronald Brautigam's recital of the Op.31 no.3 Sonata in E flat major on a fortepiano. It was an experience that brought home just how primitive the instrument Beethoven was writing for and stretching the limits of, how finely-tuned his ear was for the ability of sounds to create entire universes of the dreams and realities of his life, and how beautifully the sound engineer captured Brautigam's playing. A fortepiano is not an entirely easy instrument to play, especially under the circumstances, and being the first in an important new series must have put the team under increased pressure. But while there was occasionally a hectoring quality to his faster runs, as might be expected in a sound environment which may not have encouraged light delicacy of touch, there were compensations in the new instrument's powerful sweep and passion when needed. 

Simone Lamsma and Boris Giltburg © Het Concertgebouw
Simone Lamsma and Boris Giltburg
© Het Concertgebouw

The impact of the live-stream format was fully revealed in the Violin Sonata in A major, Op.30 no.1, one of those transitional works in which there is an exultation in both the world the composer had come from, of charm and sheer beauty and narrative fluency, and an anticipation of the world for which he was headed. A sense of contrast also applied to the playing styles, on modern instruments, of Simone Lamsma and Boris Giltburg

His elegant, arching phrases always hinted at further arching, and the sense of inevitability and impeccable timing when he let topmost phrases go was like a series of long sighs. She brought breathtaking variation to the way she stroked the bow, sometimes laying it on with great texture and color, sometimes biting, and there was never one stroke that felt inauthentic. Like her partner, she was personal and intimate in her understanding of those places where a held note or a line needs to reach and hold a point gently before descending. They shared a transcendent understanding of the spirit of Beethoven's dynamic and expressive markings. They made of the great Allegretto con variazioni a showpiece of the composer's most imaginative art. And how appropriate for a work that demands only that the performers be in love.

The GoYa Quartet Amsterdam © Het Concertgebouw
The GoYa Quartet Amsterdam
© Het Concertgebouw

The GoYa quartet, RCO members from Belgium, Cuba, Japan and France, were led by first violinist Sylvia Huang, Olympian and serene, one of those rare musicians who play with the integrity of line and purity of thought that leads to truly spontaneous moments of insight and illumination. She used portamento sparingly and yet each time it marked an important arrival point. Her trills seemed casual but were delivered with an impeccable sense of timing that gave them the importance the composer meant them to have, not mere decorations but personally meaningful flutters of the heart. Second violinist Mirelys Morgan Verdecia served brilliantly as navigator and bridge to the wonderful sound worlds Beethoven created for the viola, which Saeko Oguna played with flair, and the love affair he had with the cello to which Honorine Schaeffer responded with commanding tone and virtuosity. 

Together they found everything that was to happen in the next 14 quartets ready to grow. They played at speeds that were meant to communicate, and they took  whatever time they needed to tell their story. They resisted the impulse to make the first movement too much a matter of contrast, they humanized the outbursts. In the finale they decided not to make the dizzying whirl of triplets at the end the only purpose of the movement. Instead they achieved pure physical exhilaration throughout from holding lines firmly and seamlessly, each playing their parts with total musical engagement and balanced so that you could hear every note in every part without losing any sense of the whole. 

There was something powerful in watching these concerts live from the Concertgebouw stage, although there must have been challenges in getting the balances right, and too often the director missed shots of key moments for the various instruments. The 10-inch LP is back!


These performances were reviewed from the Concertgebouw's video streams. 

View Simone Lamsma and Boris Giltburg here

View the GoYa Quartet here

Watch the video here