Orchestras worldwide are marking the Beethoven anniversary in various ways, from the predictable symphony cycles to recreations of the ‘super concert’ of 1808. Cologne’s Gürzenich Orchestra has gone one better and reinvented the ethos from which that concert was born in a programme that it has been taking to various European venues this month. The orchestra’s chief conductor, François-Xavier Roth, has put together his own ‘academy’ concert, which in Beethoven’s day was a showcase for the latest music, but with the twist here that works signifying Beethoven’s own modernity were combined with music from our own time.

François-Xavier Roth © Holger Talinski
François-Xavier Roth
© Holger Talinski

Each half of the concert was an hour-long sequence of largely uninterrupted music, applause being held back until the end of each. Roth had commissioned German composer Isabel Mundry to create musical links, entitled Beethoven Resonances, between the various works, which largely comprised sparing, atmospheric touches of percussion. In the academy tradition, scattered Beethoven movements were set against full works, namely his Emperor Concerto, together with, from our own time, a latter-day riposte to that work by Francesco Filidei and two short but impactful works by German modernist masters Helmut Lachenmann and Bernd Alois Zimmermann.

I have to admit that my heart sank when I saw reference to a choreographer being involved, though his contribution seemed to be confined to directing scattered musicians in the orchestra to stand up from time to time when they weren’t playing – all for no obvious reason. There was also some ‘direction’ of soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s movements, again when he wasn’t required to play. To be frank, the subtle use of lighting was all that was required in the way of visual distraction.

Aimard eased his way into the first sequence with a handful of Beethoven’s Bagatelles, mashed up with Mundry’s aural binding agent, leading straight into the Emperor, a performance notable for its grandeur and energy. And then, in a designed way, things began to fall apart, with the UK premiere of Filidei’s Quasi una bagatella, a work that deconstructs the Beethoven concerto to witty effect: the soloist tries out single notes; the orchestra attempts to play a chord in tune and together; and the widest array of percussion is employed, with everything from popping bubble-wrap to a squeezy toy. Given that this Italian composer’s previous credits include a work entitled Killing Bach, this piece was endearingly if scurrilously affectionate.

Part two opened with the slow movement of the Moonlight Sonata, segueing, via more Mundry, into Lachenmann’s Tableau of 1988, a sonically theatrical showcase for the composer’s resourceful use of the orchestra and unusual demands on his players, who often seemed to do anything but play their instruments in the normal way. Then came two of Beethoven’s more revolutionary symphonic movements, the opening Adagio-Allegro of his First Symphony and the Allegretto from the Seventh – here the clunky transition from one to the other was one of the few miscalculations of this continuous, sequential approach to programming. The Allegretto, in particular, like all the Beethoven in the concert played vibrato-less in period manner, was just a little over manicured. Roth kept the dactylic rhythm stable, but souped up the dynamic and expressive contrasts to detrimental effect.

Some more silent stage theatricals brought Aimard back on to the platform to play Beethoven’s final sonata movement, the Arietta from Op.111 – or at least an excerpt thereof: having given a surprisingly puritanical rendition of the ‘boogie-woogie’ variation he was cut off in his prime by the arrival of Zimmermann’s Photoptosis (1968). This fierce and furious exposition of orchestral colour, revealing the Gürzenich’s corporate virtuosity at its best, seems at the opposite pole to Beethoven’s motivic way of working, but in its glittering assault on the ears it made an apt conclusion to the programme, its centre briefly quoting from the Choral Symphony, as well as Scriabin, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, as a way of hearing the past through the ears of the future.

Roth’s stated aim is to reinvent the concert programme. As an experiment, it certainly made a change from the standard meat-and-two-veg variety, though I’m not convinced it is an approach that can be taken much further without becoming clichéd itself, fascinating and enthralling as this one-off was.

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