When austerity struck a few years back, orchestras quickly turned to Beethoven cycles as a guaranteed seat-filler without the need for expensive orchestra reinforcements. Now in his 250th anniversary year, Beethoven cycles dominate musical seasons. In short, Ludwig sells. It is all the more admirable, then, that all-Beethoven programmes such as this find such stimulating musical depths.

Ben Gernon © Jane Hobson
Ben Gernon
© Jane Hobson

The joint BBC Philharmonic/ Hallé Beethoven project is an unapologetically single-minded one. Rather than pairing the symphonies with contemporary composers, they are programmed alongside lesser-heard rarities from the Beethoven catalogue. Tonight’s offerings were a well-chosen selection of numbers from the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and the choral Opferlied, prefacing a superbly lithe account of the Eroica of which most chamber orchestras would be proud.

The Prometheus selections, opening with an effervescent overture at a brisk one-in-a-bar, took in No. 1 from Act 1, and numbers 5, 8, 9, 15 and 16 from Act 2. This gave the sense of a musically and narratively satisfying arc to the concert performance, rather than feeling like a dispassionate ‘highlights’ playlist. The most memorable moments came in the intimate interactions between principal players in No. 5 (cello, flute and bassoon solos with rare harp accompaniment), the oboe’s tragic lament in No. 9, and elegantly duetting bassoon and clarinet in No. 15. Aside from the timpani fireworks in No. 8, the music was approached with an unwaveringly light touch, culminating in a joyously buoyant finale.

Opferlied is one of the darkest niches of the Manchester Beethoven rarities. The seven-minute setting of Frederich von Matthisson’s poem is a curious beast, not quite a Lied or a cantata, and scored for soloist and choir with an orchestra stripped of flute, oboes, trumpets and drums. Mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnston sang with a rich, warmly coloured tone above the steadily pulsing tread of the music. The Manchester Chamber Choir, ranged widely across the rear of the stage rather than in the choir stalls, handled Beethoven’s characteristically unsympathetic choral writing with apparent ease, pulling off some admirable pianissimos high in the soprano range. It was an gracefully performed curiosity, but with its eccentric format one suspects its concert hall survival beyond Beethoven anniversaries will be limited.

The Eroica Symphony faces no such threat, but rather presents the challenge to its performers of finding something fresh to say. Ben Gernon’s great achievement here was to combine the best of a symphony orchestra performance, with adequate power in the tank for the big climaxes, with the best of historically informed practice, with natural trumpets, manual timpani and quick, light bowing making it feel fresh at every turn. The vast opening movement was lively and muscular, the tension growing inexorably through the development to a thrilling return of the principal theme. The coda was a total joy, its string lines skipping upwards joyously around the woodwind and horn solos. There was another moving oboe solo in the slow movement, just finding the right amount of watery optimism amid the grim tragedy set up by the gravelly double bass triplets. After an exceptionally quick Scherzo, where the horns did well to get their lips around their echoing calls, the finale swept imperiously to an immensely satisfying close.

****1