It’s been done before, of course. All nine symphonies in one day. Some claims stretch back to the early 1970s. Sometimes with just the one orchestra (Martyn Brabbins and the Salomon Orchestra in 2010); sometimes with three (Lorin Maazel using the LSO, Philharmonia and RPO in 1988). But this may well have been the first live internet stream with all parts of the canon and a few add-ons. Clearly a little late for Beethoven’s big year, but better late than never. Nine different orchestras from across Europe; nine different venues, from Bonn to Vienna (bookending this marathon) and from Dublin to Delphi, six of which were en plein air.

Daniel Harding conducts the First in Bonn
© Beethoven Jubiläums GmbH

The choleric weather had a part to play as well. It was mostly grey over western Europe, occasionally with audible consequences. As the slow movement of Number One was drawing to a close, Daniel Harding conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra looked up in alarm at the rumble of thunder followed by the patter of light rain on the overhead canopy. In Helsinki there was a prolonged hiatus in the transmission half-way through the Eroica’s Funeral March, necessitating a later apology. A heavy storm over the city had cut all the communication links. But the sun was out in Prague and the skies were almost uniformly blue in Delphi.

The Vienna Symphony plays the Ninth in front of Schloss Belvedere
© Zach Kiesling

Three venues stood out. The programme had been cleverly arranged with starts on the hour so five o’clock (CET) in Prague denoted the time for the Fifth. Here, an outside stage had been set up in Old Town Square against the majestic architectural backdrop. The Seventh was given in the antique theatre at Delphi surrounded by pine-clad hillsides; the Choral rang out in front of Vienna’s Schloss Belvedere with the fountains illuminated in the gloaming. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Dublin’s National Concert Hall had been draped inside with lush greenery, making it look more like one of Kew’s hothouses. Helsinki’s contribution, where Nicholas Collon was directing the Finnish Radio Symphony in the Third, came from the Temppeliaukion Church with its copper-lined dome and interior walls fashioned from rock and rubble.

Jaime Martín and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra

Pandemic protocols continue to diverge all over Europe. Even where audiences were seated in the open air and with individual social distancing too, as in the case of Strasbourg, they were still required to wear masks. The concert-hall in Luxembourg had an audience; the one in Dublin did not. Only in Prague was the conductor able to shake hands with the leader.

Non-musical matters frequently had a disruptive effect. At the very start of the relay there was a lack of synchronisation which lasted for much of the first movement of the First Symphony, resulting in vision being a whole minute ahead of sound. In Dublin for the Second with the RTÉ National Symphony, the video direction was afflicted with ADHD. A different camera angle every two seconds does not make for a satisfying visual experience: this was the most egregious example I have yet come across. Equally inexplicable were the body gyrations of Sylvia Camarda and eight young migrants performing in outside spaces (occasionally derailed by camera operators) as some kind of meaningful accompaniment to the Fourth which was being played inside by the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg. Nor did the choreography produced by Sasha Waltz and her troupe of semi-clad dancers add anything to Teodor Currentzis’ interpretation of the Seventh. They gazed moodily into the middle distance after the first movement for a whole minute before the symphony was allowed to resume. In the Finale they mobbed the conductor, bringing to mind Sir Thomas Beecham’s aperçu that this A major symphony is “like a lot of yaks jumping around”.

Sasha Waltz & Guests dance the Seventh in Delphi
© Sasha Waltz & Guests

Most of the symphonies were performed by chamber-sized ensembles. Even when there were ten first violins playing in Strasbourg, there was no obvious gain in terms of the sound. Weight was found to be wanting in the string section in Dublin, for instance, which sported just two double basses. Two orchestras stood out for me for very different reasons. In Prague the specific sonorities were immediately apparent. There was a deeper, darker, reassuringly old-world sound to the Czech strings with an earthiness which contrasted with the preceding Luxembourg orchestra. Equally delightful was the vibrancy of the woodwind: full-fat clarinets and fruity bassoons.

The Czech National Symphony Orchestra in Prague
© Petr Cepela | Czech Television

On the shores of Lake Lugano, Diego Fasolis and the Baroque chamber ensemble which he founded, I Barocchisti, made one of the best advertisements for period practice. Playing on ancient instruments, this Swiss band delivered a bewitching rusticity and freshness in a Pastoral which brimmed with character. Again, it was the specificities of sound that caught the ear: the purity of the birdsong at the close of the second movement, the thudding and shuddering of the cellos and basses as the storm proceeded and the shriek of the wooden piccolo. The Finale brought nimble phrasing and an uplift to the textures drawn from light touches to the bow, a myriad of shimmering colours shining forth from a tapestry of silken fibres.

I Barocchisti by Lake Lugano
© Chiara Zocchetti

Not all the conductors seemed to have something personal to say about the symphonies they were in charge of. Harding (1), Jaime Martín (2), Gustavo Gimeno (4) and Marko Letonja (8) did little more than ensure accurate representations of the score. Harding fared much better with the Leonora Overture no. 3 that followed, the MCO suitably atmospheric at the start and then rapidly building momentum. The trumpet solo delivered from an open first-floor window in the courtyard of the Bonner Schloss was an inspired theatrical touch. Not all the fillers were worth the effort: Gimeno’s Egmont overture and the Violin Romance no. 2 played by the leader of the Strasbourg orchestra, Charlotte Juillard, lacked character, but Steven Mercutio’s Fidelio overture, following on from a big-boned, energy-driven Fifth, was quite effulgent.

A trumpeter in Bonn
© Beethoven Jubiläums GmbH

There was a distinctly period feel to Collon’s Eroica with its hard-sticked timpani, valveless horns, natural trumpets and minimal vibrato. More than the other conductors he appeared to be positively enjoying himself, his face often wreathed in smiles, and this fed through into a joyous, festive account of the Finale.

Back in the land of his birth, Currentzis was alternately impressive and maddening. Both in the Sostenuto introduction to the Seventh as well as the Allegretto there was sensitive shaping and a keen ear for inner string detail. Yet there was little euphoria or indeed ecstasy on the way through the last two movements. The Presto was uniformly furious and breathless; in the Finale at virtually the same tempo the slicing and dicing became relentless.

Karina Canellakis conducts the Ninth
© Zach Kiesling

And so to joy itself in the Ninth. Karina Canellakis turned in a creditable account with the Vienna Symphony and Wiener Singverein (yes, real voices!), at her best in the ebb and flow of the slow movement. A pity the solo quartet was ill-matched: the young Austrian mezzo was drowned out by the other three, with Piotr Beczała often straining for effect and Camilla Nylund less than radiant.

In 1787, Beethoven was just 16 when he met the 31-year-old Mozart in Vienna. After their conversation Mozart confided to Constanze: “One day he’ll give the world something to talk about.” Indeed.

These performances were reviewed from the Arte live video stream