The legendary Akademie at the Theater an der Wien on 22nd December 1808 was quite an event: a benefit concert for Ludwig van Beethoven, stuffed with premieres. Some of the sheet music was still wet with ink. Given current health concerns, this afternoon’s recreation by the Philharmonia was also quite an event. Presenter Stephen Fry surely wasn't wrong when he predicted this could well be “the last mass gathering we could be at for some time” but what better way to sign off – for the time being, at least – than by celebrating the music of “humanity’s greatest champion”.

Esa-Pekka rehearses <i>1808 Reconstructed</i> with the Philharmonia © Camilla Greenwell
Esa-Pekka rehearses 1808 Reconstructed with the Philharmonia
© Camilla Greenwell

Overseen by a bust of the composer, Fry popped up around the Royal Festival Hall all afternoon with witty bon mots about the Akademie, including a snarky review in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung and a stinging account by composer and critic Johann Friedrich Reichardt. Lit by Rick Fisher, including dramatic reds and blues, the performance was directed by Gerard McBurney, who ensured that the bladder-testing programme flowed swiftly, with minimum fuss between works. 

Esa-Pekka Salonen appeared to share that desire too, setting off on a brisk walk through the countryside in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. With the Philharmonia strings, first and second violins clustered together, sounding sumptuously rich, this threatened to be a Pastoral for the Hunter wellies brigade, but affectionate woodwind solos – especially the nightingale, quail and cuckoo calls in the Scene by the Brook added character, as did the double basses which attacked the rustic peasant dances with beery vigour. Period trumpets added pep to the storm, one of the few concessions to historically informed practices – but at least they didn’t turn the heating off – and the Shepherd’s Song of the finale raised the spirits. 

Golda Schultz was the classy soprano in the concert aria Ah, perfido!, a near-name match for Josephine Schultz-Killitschky who sang at the 1808 concert (with less success). Schultz’s creamy tone and clean attack rode the orchestra with ease. Then, in the Gloria from the Mass in C, the youthful energy and verve of the Rodolfus Choir and Philharmonia Voices impressed.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard © Marco Borggreve | DG
Pierre-Laurent Aimard
© Marco Borggreve | DG

Pierre-Laurent Aimard stole onto the platform unobtrusively and opened the Fourth Piano Concerto almost without anyone noticing. His delicate touch led to an intimate rather than a muscular account, aided by slightly pared down orchestral forces. A late step-in for Andreas Haefliger (due to travel restrictions), Aimard caught the impish character of the Rondo finale especially well, the good humour extending to the elbow bumps with the conductor at its conclusion. 

After the interval, baton flicked right behind his shoulder blade, Salonen launched into a fierce, taut account of the Fifth Symphony, blazing with revolutionary fire. The Philharmonia brass sounded truly majestic in the Andante con moto and the fugue section of the Scherzo set off at a furious speed. In the finale, I detected a real sense of defiance rather than the usual C major triumph. 

In another section of the Mass, the four soloists, led by Schultz, blended well. These excerpts from the Mass were not advertised beforehand at the 1808 Akademie given the ban on performing church music in theatres – sneaky Ludwig! Then, before we knew it, the spotlight was back on Aimard for the extemporised solo played by Beethoven, here the Fantasia in G minor. Fry’s description of a critical putdown of the work as “neither difficult to play nor artistic” saw Aimard’s shoulders shaking with laughter. 

Salonen’s unflagging energy saw the afternoon ended with a spirited account of the Choral Fantasy, which is not exactly Beethoven’s finest work but of interest as a clear trial run for the finale of the Ninth Symphony. The work’s text, in praise of music itself, struck a pertinent chord, with lines like “night and tempest turn to light” offer a message of hope for us all. Beethoven’s music will keep that flame burning.

*****