Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was once new. Very new and very different. As Christoph von Dohnányi once tellingly remarked, there wasn’t actually any need for it. Birth pangs often bring about all kinds of regrets: Carl Czerny, one of the composer’s pupils, later reported that Beethoven regarded the choral finale as a mistake and wanted to replace it with a purely instrumental movement. In retrospect, what may come to be seen as inevitable would initially have appeared as puzzlingly perverse.

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC SO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Juxtaposing the old and the new in concert helps to remind us that ears can and need to be challenged. There was almost an embarrass de richesse in this concert given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with two conductors and a pair of world premieres. There was an a cappella start with Neil Ferris directing his excellent singers in Jonathan Dove’s We are one fire. It takes as its text a poem by the British librettist and playwright Alasdair Middleton in which there were pre-echoes – “we are stars of one constellation” – of “the starry vault” in the main work. The three sections mirror the pattern of a concerto: the opening, rhythmically taut and emphatic, emphasising in its repetitions of “Red River” the origins of humankind in deepest Africa, a legato infused interlude with unison singing and then a return to the staccato-driven energy of the start. In all, an opportunity for the Chorus to display a commendable range of vocal technique and Ferris his passionate commitment.

There was also much energy at work in Dieter Ammann’s Piano Concerto, both in the interplay between the soloist Andreas Haefliger and the orchestra as well as in the several cadenza-like passages in which there were virtuosic displays in the grand Lisztian manner. Here too, in some of the softer moments, there were tantalising glimpses of an ethereal, even celestial, region inhabited by a much earlier master. In this half-hour work the ear inevitably searches for structural elements and thematic references to aid orientation. There were apparent backward glances at Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Tippett, but overall coherence eluded me. One admired the technical facility: the chattering woodwind, ostinato string effects, harp glissandos, shimmering strokes from the percussion and dramatic punctuation from the brass. Sensibility was engaged, the heart less so. Like so many old fogeys wont to declare, “I was young once!”, some new pieces pass from stages of arresting originality to comfortable familiarity. In the case of these two musical newcomers I have my doubts as to whether they might one day attain classical status. However, time is the great arbiter. It alone determines what will be remembered and what will not.

For the first two movements of Beethoven’s Choral I wondered if Sakari Oramo, batonless throughout with the surprising exception of the second movement, was intent on making the work sound as stark and bare as he could. The music seemed stripped back to its foundations, the bare bones of the edifice uncompromising and severe. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the insistent, indeed persistent, role of hard-sticked timpani. “This is the way it has to go,” his orchestra proclaimed, with climactic surges punched out rather than bringing a sense of release. The first movement was over and done with in less than a quarter of an hour: no mystery at the start, still less any aura of primeval mysticism, no emphasis on inner voices in the strings and little in the way of the composer’s signature struggle and conflict. It was very business-like and ultimately soulless.

Anu Komsi, Hilary Summers, Michael Weinius and Mika Kares with the BBC SO
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

This earlier degree of fierceness gave way in the slow movement to a welcome feeling of repose, Oramo paying appropriate attention to the key marking of cantabile (unlike his disregard for ma non troppo and maestoso in the first movement) and through highlighting of the woodwind a transparent and luminous quality to the writing. Come the finale everything seemed to come together in quite an unforced manner, the joyous and full-throated statements of universality sensitively contrasted with those moments of celestial inwardness, the four solo voices carrying a vision of ecstasy into the jubilant coda.

The real stars of the evening were for me the vocal and choral contributors. Reviewers may be forgiven their own bugbears and obsessions. I have increasingly tired of seeing soloists sweep onto a platform, sometimes a little bashfully, just before their individual great moments, with heads then buried in scores or clutching music-stands. I have yet to see the three trombonists make a separate entrance at the start of the finale to Beethoven’s Fifth. Here, the wonderfully balanced solo quartet were present on stage, positioned left of the woodwind, from the very beginning and sang – as did all the members of the magnificently charged Chorus – from memory. This kind of commitment is indeed rare in performance. I salute them all.