Why Beethoven? Because he's constantly challenging, comforting but never comfortable and ultimately life-affirming. And, not least from a promoter’s point of view, Beethoven sells. In a concert overture like Coriolan, you have in condensed form what this composer is all about: sharp dramatic contrasts – the collision of fierce ethical values with the constraints of the real world – and the tenderest lyricism to give succour to the embattled soul. Starting off a concert with an overture has fallen somewhat out of fashion. Yet to do so has the beneficial effect of settling an audience and priming the orchestra. And if the arresting C minor chords that begin Coriolan don’t cow those still guilty of whispering, throat-clearing and rustling their sweet papers and programmes into instant submission, nothing ever will.

Murray Perahia © Felix Broede
Murray Perahia
© Felix Broede

Caius Martius Coriolanus (the conqueror of Corioles) developed a highly-charged reputation for fearlessness but also stubbornness. It’s not Shakespeare’s blood-filled tragedy but a play by Beethoven’s contemporary and friend, Heinrich von Collin, that occasioned this musical portrait of the 5th-century Roman general. Delivered with appropriate vehemence by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and directed by Tomo Keller from the Leader’s chair, this was a perfect demonstration of how unnecessary an additional presence on the podium is when there is a uniform sense of artistic purpose. With energising definition from the hard-sticked timpani and moments of agitation in the repeated string figurations atmospherically conveyed, this was an invigorating curtain-opener.

The rest of the evening belonged to Murray Perahia. It was clear from the outset of the B flat major concerto (the first, not the second, of Beethoven’s keyboard concertos) that the soloist and the ensemble he was directing were entirely on the same wavelength. With the strings tripping the light fantastic and then yielding to Perahia’s first impish entry, here was a musical representation of a young man breathing in all the joys of the world. Energy was in overdrive, to the extent that the start of the cadenza sounded almost like a turbo-propelled Bach chaconne, but the mercurial shifts in tone and emphasis, with hints of the demonic towards the close, provided a satisfying foil. Those tantalising glimpses of profundity in Beethoven’s already quite mature writing in the Adagio – taken more briskly than is usually the case – brought to mind one of the many apposite quotations from Goethe’s Faust, “Verweile doch! Du bist so schön!”. If only Perahia had lingered just a little longer over those curling phrases, it would have contrasted even more satisfyingly with the devil-take-the-hindmost abandon of the finale. In this the soloist had the bit between his teeth, was up and away like the gambolling lambs in the spring sunshine, with not a care in the world. Perhaps Beethoven’s underlying element of cheekiness was in short supply – the way in which he deliberately plays with his listeners and turns ideas on their musical head – but this was still playing of exceptional quality.

There are a number of portraits of Beethoven in which the composer, mottled face, unruly hair, glowering mien, stares out uncompromisingly. Take me as I am, he seems to say, I am a force of nature that will not be bound by the conventions of this world. That image registered quite strongly with me in Perahia’s performance of the G major concerto. Unlike Mozart, who never seems to hurry in anything he does, Beethoven is a master of impatience. As with the earlier concerto, there was no attempt to prettify the music, to bring it closer to Mozartian models, or to rein in the volcanic tides of energy. So often this concerto is an excuse for excessive introversion in the outer movements, of tonal fastidiousness and self-regarding languor in the Andante con moto. Not with Perahia. Here the edges were never smoothed out and the ruggedness of Beethoven’s artistic vision came across strongly, warts and all.

The ASMF players were wonderfully attuned to Perahia’s approach, producing heft where necessary and a richly veined and beautifully balanced orchestral sound throughout. Again and again the notion that this music could ever be considered comfortable was being challenged. With a first movement cadenza that was by turns fiercely insistent and gently cajoling, Perahia captured the essence of Beethoven: a revolutionary spirit, but with a human face. In the cadenza of the finale the impatience was untrammelled, with no concessions to good manners. Not the least of the many remarkable details in this performance were Perahia’s powerful trills towards the close of the slow movement where the soloist sends out a strong signal to the strings as if to say, “I’m as strong and powerful as you are!” This was an evening of matchless music-making from one of our most aristocratic and authentic artists.

Why Beethoven? Need you still ask?

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