The Beethoven symphonies are among the most popular orchestral works of the last two centuries. Herbert von Karajan made history with his four complete recordings of the cycle. Roger Norrington stirred long-lasting debate and changed the way we listened to Beethoven with the unusually fast tempi in his interpretation which, as he claimed, followed the original scores precisely. The CD and DVD market is saturated with recordings, and on YouTube one can listen for almost a whole day to different recordings of the Fifth without repeating a single one. This amazing choice becomes, of course, a double-edged sword for orchestras and audience alike. Granted, performing Beethoven symphonies remains a sure-fire way to fill a concert hall, but the expectations are extremely high. While some members of the audience will be delighted to listen to the fateful hammering of ‘pah-pah-pah-pah’ in the Fifth any time, many would prefer to go beyond that and challenge themselves with an interpretation they haven’t heard before.

The Sydney Festival, which takes place every January, invited Anima Eterna Brugge along with the its founding conductor Jos van Immerseel to perform a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies over five evenings, a splendid opportunity for the Sydney audience to hear all the Beethoven symphonies performed on period instruments within a week.

The concert I attended consisted of Symphony no. 6 in F major and Symphony no. 5 in C minor. The orchestral playing was captivating right from the first note, resounding with precision, sonority and, above all, a balance between instrument groups that is seldom found in the sound of mainstream symphony orchestras. Most modern orchestras present a voluminous cushion of string sound, created by a very large group of string players. Anima Eterna follows the example of contemporary orchestras from Beethoven’s time and, as a result, their total number of violinists (firsts and seconds) are less than the first violin section of a typical modern orchestra alone. This creates a completely different proportion between the woodwind or brass players – the necessary numbers always precisely listed in a Beethoven score – and the strings, which are marked not by individual part but by section: I. Violin, II. Violin, Viola etc. As several instruments often share the same melody, it makes a significant difference if two bassoons are coupled with four cellos or ten, or if one single flute is paired with half a dozen violins or twice as many. The timbre (which the composer probably had in mind at the time) thus changes completely, allowing wind and brass players to play as delicately as they like and, more importantly, as the score might actually instruct them without becoming inaudible. This is a less sensitive question in romantic music but is one of the reasons why modern orchestras rarely choose to perform Baroque and classical repertoire in our time.

Anima Eterna also impressed the audience with the varied tone colours of their period instruments, although the brazen calls of unvalved horns, the rugged edge of dry timpani beats, and the strikingly unusual sound of wooden flutes and gut strings shock audiences far less than they did 20-30 years ago. The strictness of non-vibrato playing, particularly on the front desks of the string sections, seemed to be excessive though. Admittedly, vibrato was used much less around the turn of the 18th century than it is today, it is amply documented that it was still considered one of many possible ways of ornamenting the sound.

The quality of playing was nonetheless outstanding. Beethoven’s music was as life-changingly beautiful as one could wish for, and yet I could not repress an almost constant feeling of dissatisfaction throughout the evening. It took me quite a while to realise why this performance did not fascinate me. While the notes of the score were performed in the correct pitch, time and volume, the power of an individual interpretation and the risk-taking sense of adventure seemed oddly absent in the conducting of Jos van Immerseel. Most of his small hand movements referred to technicalities: an entry, beats of the bar, perhaps even louder or softer dynamics. But the constantly changing flow of the phrasing (that very essence of music making), the finely chiselled articulation of melodies, the personal touch – were hardly ever shown or heard. Beethoven’s heart-warming melodies chugged ahead with unrelenting metrical precision and there seemed to be little distinction between the impact of consonant or dissonant harmonies, or the way they related to each other. Whether this was due to the fatigue effect of too many performances of the same works or to the conductor’s current concept, I cannot say. An animated spirit however, as suggested by the orchestra’s name, did not permeate the performance on this night.