No escape is possible. Beethoven was born 250 years ago and quite naturally features very prominently in concert programmings throughout the year. Riccardo Chailly and the Filarmonica della Scala, on a visit to Antwerp, made no apologies with a deceptively simple all-Beethoven bill consisting of the Egmont Overture and Symphonies 5 and 8. In effect, it was not all that simple, as turning these overfamiliar pieces into a refreshing and exhilarating concert experience is no mean feat. But that’s exactly what they did tonight.

Riccardo Chailly conducts the Filarmonica della Scala © Ronald Knapp
Riccardo Chailly conducts the Filarmonica della Scala
© Ronald Knapp

The musicians of the Filarmonica della Scala cannot deny their roots. With Chailly on the scarlet rostrum they invest every work with such eloquent drama that the opera stage never seems far away. Out of the pit they form an enviable ensemble boasting plush strings, distinctive winds and some of the richest brass one can hear. And Chailly clearly knows how to capitalise on their strengths. The Egmont Overture formed the ideal curtain-raiser with a pitch dark opening intensified by long silences, compellingly shaped conflicting emotions, a suspenseful dramatic climax, and an unstoppable coda sounding like the gates to freedom smashed wide open.

Egmont also introduced other qualities recurrent throughout the evening. The vivace and con brio markings which frequently appear in the symphonies summarise to a large extent Chailly’s approach to Beethoven. Brisk tempi and rhythmical energy, dynamic control and a close watch on orchestral detail are obvious characteristics. Yet with La Scala his classical approach is balanced by a fair dose of lyricism and dramatic weight too. Add to that a genuine sense of joy in making music shared by all on the stage, and you've got a perfect formula.

Their spirited account of the Eighth demonstrated that fully. Swift but never breathless or inarticulate, the forward surge in the outer movements was truly electrifying. The pulsating development section of the Allegro vivace en con brio accumulated enormous tension towards the triple forte, while the inner movements sparkled with balletic grace or boisterous energy and wit, highlighting the orchestra’s instrumental polish and rhythmic acuity.

A tremendous reading of the Fifth followed after the break. The familiarity of the symphony may have largely obscured its originality, but a really good performance can still leave you in awe. Conducted with a sure hand by Chailly, up to the tiniest detail, and excitingly played, there were countless moments to cherish. The Allegro con brio crackled with energy, the beautiful oboe offering a magical time suspending moment. The powerful brass topped the climaxes without forcing – the horns were a constant joy – as was the piccolo in the Finale’s tutti. When the formidable phalanx of basses and cellos were digging deep in the fugato section of the third movement’s Trio, the violins following with similar relish, or when the Finale broke free in all its glorious light, you could feel a frisson running through the hall.

To gratify the standing ovation, maestro Chailly turned towards the audience, announcing in not too bad Dutch (he clearly hasn’t forgotten his years with Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra) they would play “a little bit more Beethoven... the Prometheus Overture”, thrillingly performed, as was by now no longer a surprise, with the first violins shining in the Allegro section.

The Beethoven year has barely begun, but even now I can safely say it will be hard to top such a consistently splendid and satisfying tribute to our birthday boy as was offered here by Chailly and the Filarmonica. 

*****