Ludwig overload? There are going to be many Beethoven cycles performed during this 250th anniversary year but probably none as concentrated as this: a binge-listen to the nine symphonies in just thirty hours at London’s Barbican Centre, duties shared across five of the UK’s finest orchestras and their chief conductors. So no single, unified vision of the cycle, but a fascinating opportunity to compare and contrast approaches to Beethoven’s music amidst a weekend of events including string quartets, readings of his letters and the opportunity to hear the composer’s own violin up-close-and-personal – with wristbands to access all areas.

Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra © Mark Allan | Barbican
Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
© Mark Allan | Barbican

But it’s the symphonies that concern us here and the differences in the five conductors’ approaches could be surmised before a single note of their respective performances was played. Vasily Petrenko was alone in herding all his violins to the left, the others preferring the antiphonal separation traditionally employed early in the 19th century. Petrenko also favoured a large string band – 50 Royal Liverpool Philharmonic players on duty – equalled by Sir Mark Elder and The Hallé in the Ninth, and nearly matched by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (48). Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra went slimline for the First (30) but bumped up the numbers by ten for the Eroica, while Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia went fat free with just 24 string players.

Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia © Mark Allan | Barbican
Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Earlier in the week, I heard Sir Roger Norrington, who helped spur the revolution in period instrument Beethoven, revive those glory days with OAE performances of the Second and the Eroica. Norrington’s work made a big impact on the musical establishment, as did that of Nikolaus Harnoncourt who was among the first to apply period “manners” to modern instrument orchestras (his Chamber Orchestra of Europe cycle was, for me, a game-changer). Harnoncourt’s introduction of period timpani and trumpets was taken up by Karabits and Gražinytė-Tyla here, while Vogt opted for the drums. Those period trumpets really do make a difference, preventing the brass from dominating the textures, and the caustic rattle of hard sticks on period timps adds punch.

Vasily Petrenko talks to John Suchet © Mark Allan | Barbican
Vasily Petrenko talks to John Suchet
© Mark Allan | Barbican

So, different approaches, different palettes, yet five very satisfying concerts. Each was introduced by Beethoven biographer John Suchet, a little earnest in tone but engaging. I take issue with some of his declarations – the tick-tock of the Eighth’s second movement was inspired by Mälzel – but there were fun facts he threw in: I didn’t know, for example, that Meyerbeer played timps in the premiere of the Seventh. The Barbican’s presentation extended to a sign language interpreter for the introductions and conductor interviews and two giant screens to monitor performances up close, including a “conductor cam” which brought the audience inside perspectives on the various conductor–orchestra relationships.

Petrenko and RLPO were compensated for their early start (11:00) by being awarded a “plum draw” of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, an obvious pairing given they premiered in the same, gargantuan 1808 Akademie at the Theater an der Wien. There was fire and grit and grumpy double basses in the Fifth, the highlight being Jonathan Small’s oboe solo in the slow movement and the trombones powering their way through the finale. Petrenko’s Pastoral was often a bracing walk, the peasants dancing vigorously. The brook babbled at a flowing pace under his elegant baton technique, but the storm was a relatively tame affair.

Kirill Karabits conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra © Mark Allan | Barbican
Kirill Karabits conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
© Mark Allan | Barbican

After the long, drawn chords serving as a series of question marks, I adored Karabits and the BSO in the First. The Allegro con brio of the opening movement had real zing – clean, lean and urgent – and the Haydnesque wit of the finale was a joy, Karabits, conducting without a baton but with a huge smile. Their Third Symphony was extremely satisfying, with a very moving Marcia funebre. After the thrills and spills of the bloodsport which is natural horn playing in the OAE’s Eroica, it was sobering to realise that even with the safety net of valved horns (and a bumper), there were still spillages in the Scherzo’s Trio section.

You’d think the CBSO had perhaps drawn the short straw with 2 and 4, both “Cinderella” symphonies, but Gražinytė-Tyla injected punch and vitality into the Second, including some truly explosive timpani grenades. The Fourth was an exceptionally fine reading, from the crepuscular gloom of its Adagio opening and the moment when Beethoven pulls back the trigger and the Allegro is released. Gražinytė-Tyla’s whiplash baton – jagged and jerky – set lively tempi, but there was moving intensity to the slow movement and the CBSO’s dynamic range was the widest of the weekend, the string sound often leaner than its 48 members would suggest.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra © Mark Allan | Barbican
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Vogt and the RNS seemed to have the most fun, spiky accenting and boisterous spirits prevailing in both the Eighth and the Seventh. The avuncular Vogt has an individual baton technique which seems to rely less on a clear beat and more on signalling his intentions with his body – sometimes even just a left shoulder. There was some untidiness in ensemble, but easily forgiven when the performances bristled with such infectious energy. The Seventh’s Allegretto was reverential without dragging its feet, and the Scherzo ricocheted around the orchestra before a tremendously high-spirited finale. Top marks for synchronised bows too!

Sir Mark Elder, soloists, Hallé Choir and the Hallé © Mark Allan | Barbican
Sir Mark Elder, soloists, Hallé Choir and the Hallé
© Mark Allan | Barbican

The Ninth was given a sturdy performance by The Hallé, Elder sculpting a big, meaty sound from his players. There were a few portentous moments in the first movement where tension sagged, but the Scherzo bounced along jauntily (even if one wished Beethoven hadn’t repeated it quite so many times). The Adagio was beautifully shaped, not too treacly, and the finale came off quite superbly, the opening exchanges between the lower strings and the rest of the orchestra taking on the manner of an operatic recitative. The vocal quartet was nicely balanced – Neal Davies' phrasing eloquent in the famous opening and David Butt Philip’s tenor ringing in his solo, “Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen”. The Hallé Choir was outstanding, singing with fervour; Schiller’s message of universal brotherhood felt particularly timely this weekend, making this an emotional finale. On a weekend where The Observer reported that Beethoven may actually have retained enough hearing to have heard his Ninth premiere, one of the most glorious moments was watching Paul Whittaker signing the Ode to Joy – hypnotically expressive, loudly applauded at the end. Ludwig would have joined the cheers.