Any performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 is always eagerly awaited, but this one was especially, featuring the Australian Chamber Orchestra performing on period instruments, directed from the lead violin by their artistic director Richard Tognetti, with one of the best English collegiate choirs, the choir of Clare College, Cambridge. However, before writing about their performance of this famous choral symphony, which comprised the second half, special mention must be made of the first half of the concert, which contained some of the most musical and compelling playing and singing I have heard in a long, long time.

Australian Chamber Orchstra © Jon Frank
Australian Chamber Orchstra
© Jon Frank

The evening began with Messiaen’s “Prayer of Christ Ascending Towards his Father” from his work L’Ascension, a celestial vision of Christ’s ascension into Heaven, scored for strings alone. This was, unusually, performed on the same gut-stringed instruments used for the Brahms and Beethoven, although it did not matter as the ACO were able to produce the wonderful rich, lush sound required for this music, transporting us into a ten-minute sound world of heavenly beauty. The next two works in the program were switched, so we moved from Messiaen to Beethoven and his Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage for choir and orchestra. The first half of this work (the Calm sea part) featured some exquisitely sensitive playing from the ACO and the opening quiet entry from Clare Choir was electric, drawing us into the music in a thoroughly engaging way. The choir’s first loud entry in the Prosperous voyage section hit us like a thunderbolt, providing the music with a truly thrilling moment, the choir demonstrating the vocal power of their talented young singers.

Following this we were treated to a performance of Brahms’ Geistliches Lied, with the organ part having been arranged for strings. This for me was one of the highlights of the concert. The performance had a wonderful organic nature to it, the musical phrases perfectly shaped, with each line blending with the next and perfectly timed. This was an unfussy performance where Brahms’ music was allowed to do the talking. The climax of each phrase reached its natural peak and was then allowed to die away naturally at its conclusion. As in the Beethoven in the second half, the choir performed from memory, delivering the music from the heart.

And so on to Beethoven’s epic Symphony no. 9, the second half of the concert. Performed on period instruments, the brass section had a wonderful raspy character, which gave it a raw energy. Coupled with some thrilling string playing, the first movement was red hot, containing an almost primeval energy, the wonderful drama of Beethoven’s writing being exploited to the full. The ensuing Scherzo contained the same level of excitement and danced along to its own momentum, masterly controlled by Tognetti and his orchestra. The same level of control and also of the excellent phrasing shown earlier in the Brahms were displayed in the following Adagio, which was performed with an entrancing amount of expressivity from the players. And then to the front of the orchestra confidently strode bass Matthew Brook to deliver the famous “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” He was probably the best bass soloist I have ever heard in Beethoven’s Ninth. The part was sung in a highly dramatic, declamatory, operatic manner in which Brook’s resonant voice was used to the full. This set in motion an absolutely thrilling finale. All four soloists were outstanding. It is easy to forget that the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge is made up of students and there were only 29 of them competing against a full orchestra. Much of the last movement is consistently loud and high in the vocal range, although there were no signs whatsoever of vocal fatigue. The singers produced a full, vocally mature sound, filling the hall in an impassioned manner with Schiller’s great words of hope. The cheers at the end of the work and the standing ovation spoke for itself.

It was a thrilling concert both to watch and to listen to. I felt that the barrier which sometimes exists between musicians and audience had been torn down. The musicians on stage clearly delighted in what they were doing and their joy in performing this incredible music was clear for all to see. It was without doubt the best performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony I have ever heard and a wonderful celebration of all that great music and performing should be.