Among the many anecdotes about Beethoven, few are as touching and telling as the well-known tale of the rescinded dedication of his Symphony No. 3 in E flat major to Napoleon; when his faith in the French leader as a beacon of republican and democratic virtue was shredded by Bonaparte’s self-coronation as Empereur des français, the composer in turn tore the dedication from the front of the score. Alain Altinoglu, currently music director of La Monnaie in Brussels, prefaced his performance of the Eroica with the 1812 Overture, chronicling Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and celebrating his subsequent defeat.

Alain Altinoglu © Marco Borggreve
Alain Altinoglu
© Marco Borggreve

We may not have had cannons in the Royal Festival Hall, but it was a rousing enough performance. The warmth of home and hearth was evoked in the mild and melodious playing of the cellos at the beginning, there was clarity of phrasing from the brass, and Altinoglu’s pacing of the piece struck the right note of drama. The recorded cannon blasts sounded a touch gimmicky, but the bell playing was unashamedly joyous and it is to the orchestra’s credit that a fairly major chair catastrophe among the violas was handled with a professionalism that diverted any damage to the performance of the piece.

Before the Beethoven, a performance of Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor with Patricia Kopatchinskaja as soloist. The most obscure of the composer’s three concertos, it has a troubled history: consigned to the archives as a product of a tired and ailing mind by Clara Schumann and the violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom the work was composed, it made a brief reappearance in Nazi Germany, but it is only in the last 25 years or so that Schumann’s last major orchestral work has seen a rise in popularity, sparking performances and recordings across the globe. Though opinions vary, it’s a work for me that requires a sensational showing from soloist and orchestra to justify its performance and this seemed lacking here. Kopatchinskaja seemed to approach the concerto from an entirely different angle to that of Altinoglu and the LPO: almost as if drawing on contemporary works for inspiration, she brought muted shades of grey to the first movement, lacking a sense of the bold to match the rich colour of the LPO’s sound. Where one wanted flair and forcefulness of tone, one found only introverted lethargy. It was an interpretation that felt most apt in the second movement where her detached, cool phrasing matched the expansive lines of melody. A skillfully played encore from Sciarrino’s bizarrely ethereal Sei capricci demonstrated Kopatchinskaja’s facility with the more varied demands of contemporary writing for her instrument.

Altinoglu restored some seasoning to the concert with a punchy, alert interpretation of the Eroica. Mellow woodwind phrasing characterised the first movement with fine interplay within the section. Decisive chords opened into lively, though unrushed, tempi, with plenty of texture and contrast among the strings, the flickers of dissonance keenly exposed. A thoughtful, restrained second movement avoided the excesses of some interpretations, but there was enough originality in Altinoglu’s dynamics to bring poignancy to his rendering. The horn playing in the Scherzo was suitably full, though a little more pointedness to the phrasing would have been welcome. The emotional range of the thematic variations of the fourth movement were explored well and some particularly fine flute and bassoon playing underlay a sensitive and mature reading of the finale. A interpretation of rounded, rather than muscled, heroism.