Performances of two complete Beethoven symphony cycles by two different orchestras less than a month apart may not be unusual in a European metropolis like Berlin or London, but it is definitely out of the ordinary in Sydney. As it happened, Anima Eterna Brugge, an orchestra playing on period instruments, performed the cycle only a few weeks ago at the invitation of the Sydney Festival, which was followed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Beethoven Celebration’, comprising of three concerts in February and another three later, in October. These concerts also include some of the concertos and are conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, the orchestra’s Principal Conductor from 2009 until 2013.

The third concert in the SSO series started with the Violin Concerto in D major with soloist James Ehnes. The Canadian violinist has visited Australia before; he is popular with the local audience, and rightly so. His imposing height, elegantly cut tail suit and self-assured appearance exuded confidence before he even put bow to string, and this impression only improved as he calmly launched into the exposed octaves of his first entry. Ehnes appears to have conquered all technical difficulties of his instrument; he plays with a sensuous, always well-controlled tone on an extraordinarily responsive violin, however his more than adequate performance did not convince me of his personal view of the concerto, which left me somewhat unsatisfied. The playing of an artist of such calibre could continue to blossom by exploring musical ideas that no one has ever explored before without jeopardising the quality of the performance. Finding an individual interpretation may be extremely hard with one of the most frequently played violin concertos; fortunately though, there are examples for it.

Having heard the Symphony no. 5 in C minor so recently when it was performed by Anima Eterna under the leadership of Jos van Immerseel, and again at this concert, I was astounded by how dissimilar two performances of the same work can sound. Both orchestras played on an extremely high level but with a completely different approach, technically as much as musically. Anima Eterna gave a historically informed performance (commonly known as HIP), and as such, slightly ironically, encapsulated the latest research in a ‘modern’ reading. In contrast, the Sydney Symphony and its conductor followed a tradition of playing that was established at least half a century ago. Their sound was lush and powerful without ever becoming aggressive, and vibrato was applied not as a tool to ornament the sound, but as a precondition of it. Size also matters, and the number of the string players alone was probably higher than the total membership of the Belgian orchestra. With a significantly larger orchestra, greater contrasts between dynamic and emotional extremes became possible.

Initially, I was irked by this performing style which seemed to border on archaic. However, a few minutes into the first movement, I had to concede that, traditional or not, it was a splendidly executed, and within its framework, completely stylish reading of the ‘Beethoven Fifth’. Perhaps it was more a matter of taste, rather than a question of quality.

Ashkenazy, the formidable pianist, played the orchestra as if it was his second instrument. His élan and irrepressible joie de vivre energised everyone around him, including his audience. It is delightful to see a musician feel so deeply about his art and express that with his unrestrained physical movements. His lively punches in the air, his slightly eccentric jumps on the podium, his broad grin at a particularly well-played melody spoke volumes about his humanity, his rapport with the orchestra and his commitment to the score. He has been criticised for an occasionally unclear baton technique in the past, and indeed there were a few ensemble problems, such as in the theme of the fourth movement (the same lack of focus in his beat was noticeable on the return of the same theme later). However, it didn’t matter overall.

The first movement was weighty and the driving force of the famous opening motif repeated throughout the movement wasn’t always evident, due perhaps to a slightly slower tempo than usual. The slow movement was imaginative and suitably sombre, its atmosphere perfectly set by the theme and its subsequent variations. The lower strings, particularly cellos and violas excelled here, playing in superb ensemble with clear articulation and a soulful tone. The third movement is usually a rowdy Scherzo in Beethoven’s works; here, starting with the subdued theme on cellos and double basses it sounded menacing, before the sun finally shone onto the victorious Finale and the minor key of the first three movements gave way to a glorious C major. During the enthusiastic applause I noticed more players smiling than usual. Beethoven was truly celebrated.