So, here I am in Brussels (the cradle of the European Union, no less), listening to an impressively assertive, no-holds-barred performance of Beethoven’s famous Fifth symphony by the Orchestre Symphonique de la Monnaie under Alain Altinoglu, and I can’t help but hearing the opening ‘Da-da-da-dum’ fate theme as … yes, you guessed it … ‘Ther-e-sa MAY! Ther-e-sa MAY!’

Alain Altinoglu © Marco Borggreve
Alain Altinoglu
© Marco Borggreve

I keep thinking to myself, as the first movement’s rock-like edifice gives way to the expansive low-lying grasslands of the second – had Beethoven thought up Brexit two hundred years before it actually happened? And if so, what should we now make of the agitated third, with its gritty fugal middle section, that surges, full-throttle, into an ecstatic, uplifting, victorious finale – the latter, it has to be said, dispatched with a gleeful glint-in-the-eye swagger by the orchestra, that seemed almost to turn into a sneering “We told you so!” by the time we get to that crashing pileup of tonic-dominant cadences at the end?

A rapturous response from a packed Grande Salle Henry Le Boeuf seemed to confirm my fears. The entire audience appeared to have picked up on the added significance and resonance of Beethoven’s Fifth: his ‘Brexit’ Symphony avant la lettre.

Of course, I’m probably just being paranoid. We can read whatever we want into an abstract work such as a symphony, but the narrative of human struggle and resolution remains a universal one – hence the powerful hold that Beethoven’s music continues to exert on our imaginations.

Music transcends political time and space, as heard in the work of the other composer featured in this concert, Wim Henderickx. Here is someone who writes in a style beyond boundaries – a truly international language that nevertheless remains true to the composer’s own vision. Beethoven himself would surely have nodded sagely in approval.

Henderickx was tasked with the challenge of composing a new Concertino for harp and orchestra which incorporated elements from both Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies (the other symphony on this evening’s programme). In the hands of a less confident composer this could have easily stymied creativity. After all, Beethoven’s music has been both a blessing and a curse for composers over the years: a blessing in providing inspiration, of course, but also a curse for those unable to extricate themselves from his overbearing influence. The great Brahms himself famously took over twenty years to complete his first symphony, grumbling that “You have no idea how it feels to be continually dogged by his footsteps”.

Not so in Henderickx’s case. His concertino is a compact, focussed, highly-charged but subtly-nuanced two-movement work that plays on the more pastoral qualities of Beethoven’s sixth in the first, before bursting into life during the second. The writing for solo harp, played with a combination of ice-cool precision and full-blooded passion by Agnès Clément, is excellent, drawing on a wide range of techniques – pedal glissandos, près de la table, fingernail clusters, resonating harmonics and buzzing bass notes – to great effect, evoking along the way a diverse mix of Eastern and Western timbres with which the harp is sometimes associated, from Japanese koto and Chinese guzheng to the Arabic quanun.

This is by no means a “box of tricks” concertino, however. Subtitled “… after a soft Silence, an enormous Thunder …”, the second movement in particular sets up a dynamic rhythmic dialogue between harp and a large battery of percussion instruments positioned at the back of the stage that included everything from thunder sheet to crotales.

One sensed that Henderickx was always fully alert to the tricky task of balancing the harp’s delicate sound against the full force of the orchestra. One never knows – especially in the context of two Beethoven symphonies – what kind of reception awaits a new work, but the Grand Salle audience took to it immediately. The repertoire for harp concertos and concertinos remains thin-on-the-ground in comparison with other instruments, so let’s hope Henderickx’s concertino is taken up by the present generation of talented harpists around the world.

The performance of Beethoven’s sixth symphony in the first half was something of a mixed bag. Despite its surface simplicity, the so-called “Pastoral” is a difficult work to pull off, partly because it seems to resist forward momentum. To my ears, the second movement lacked flow and fluency, and the transition from the thunderstorm of the fourth to the “cheerful and thankful feelings” of the fifth was a little too staged, too choreographed. The mists did not evaporate magically here to leave the air feeling sharp and crystal clear, as it should do. One sensed that at times Altinoglu was easing off the pedal when he should’ve been keeping his foot down. These moments notwithstanding, this was a highly enjoyable concert capped off with a brilliant new work by Henderickx, Brexit or no Brexit.


Pwyll's press trip was funded by Norsk Musikforlag

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