It may not require the same stamina as a complete set of Bruckner or Mahler Symphonies, but a Beethoven cycle is always a challenge for any orchestra, particularly when the performances occur in festival conditions. At the most basic level, there is a risk of sheer overload when there are ‘infinite riches in a little room’, that is, when these masterpieces are heard in a concentrated burst instead of being eked out over a season. A related challenge is to avoid treating the lighter and shorter works (for example 1, 2, 4, 8) as mere counterweights to the more obviously epic masterpieces (esp. 3, 5, and 9).

Jos van Immerseel © Alex Vanhee
Jos van Immerseel
© Alex Vanhee

At the Sydney Festival, the Belgian period-instrument ensemble Anima Eterna Brugge offered Beethoven’s Nine over five evenings. Aside from the inclusion of a single overture as a makeweight in the first concert, the symphonies here were undiluted by other fare, and the program designed as a crescendo to the inevitable culmination in the Ninth. Friday night’s concert was the third in the series, but in a departure from the chronological approach followed elsewhere, Symphonies 7 & 8 were performed here, with 5 & 6 displaced to the following evening.

Within this concert, the ordering the Eighth followed by the Seventh again showed the same concern with end-weightedness. After the turbulent and Romantic fare he produced in the first decade of the 19th century, Beethoven reverted in his Eighth Symphony to a lighter, more classical aesthetic, resulting in one of his most carefree works. This wasn’t really a hallmark of conductor Jos van Immerseel’s handling of the work, which instead showcased discipline and control – qualities which ultimately had an expressive pay-off, as will be shown.

In the first movement a tight lid was kept on the joyous opening theme and the transition that followed. It wasn’t until the end of the movement that the exuberance really came through. The second movement was similarly taut, with vivid use made of the dynamic contrasts. In the third movement the tempo wasn’t allowed to slacken at all for the trio, which made the bubbling accompanimental figures in the cellos feel rather driven. By contrast, where other renditions take the fourth movement at a breakneck speed, Immerseel instead chose a more restrained tempo, and arguably were the more clear as a result. The whole performance was spirited, although for my tastes a trifle too controlled.

The nearly 40-piece orchestra demonstrated very fine cohesion, although there were the usual teething problems with the horns in the third-movement trio. A few interesting details of interpretation (e.g. the first theme was played much more on the string than is customary) might well result from a more historically informed performance style, although experientially the difference between the AEB and a modern symphony orchestra was more a matter of the sound quality of the period instruments, and less about specific interpretative readings.

While the Eighth was good, the AEB’s performance reached another level with the Seventh. Perhaps the players had relaxed more, perhaps I was more in tune with their performing style; but whatever the reason, I felt that constraint had given way to a sort of restraint that itself contributed to the expressive effect. In the slow introduction to the first movement, the controlled tempo acted as the springboard for the soaring melodies and the inexorably rising string figures to have their full effect. The main theme had the joyous lilt appropriate to a work which Wagner famously called the “apotheosis of the dance”, and the moments of terror in the development section were caught perfectly.

The beloved second movement was a particular joy in this rendition, thanks to sensitive dynamic shaping: the repeat of the second phrase of the theme was a magical whisper, while the same phrase in a later iteration underwent a crescendo into the fortissimo tutti which followed. A delectably contrasted atmosphere was created for the major-mode section.

The players really let their hair down in the third movement, with the spirit so admirably captured that one could forgive a few imperfections from the wind instruments. There were some nice messa di voce effects (smooth fades in-and-out on individual notes) in the trio section. The finale was properly rollicking, with smiles aplenty from the performers, whether at the spirited material, or because Beethoven diverted the music onto a deliciously unexpected course. For once, perhaps, the iron control of van Immerseel might have lapsed, as I detected some slight rushing from the orchestra ahead of his beat, but this was actually a welcome sign of humanity from the otherwise impeccably disciplined instrumentalists.