Every seat was taken in RTVE's Teatro Monumental in Madrid for an all Beethoven programme to hear the RTVE Orchestra with renowned pianist Vadym Kholodenko play Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, followed by the immense Ninth Symphony when soloists and the RTVE chorus joined forces, all under guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya.

Vadym Kholodenko © Van Cliburn
Vadym Kholodenko
© Van Cliburn

Beethoven was struggling with increasing deafness when he wrote the Fourth Piano Concerto giving the work a restless quality with an undertone of menace never far below the surface. It is rare for a concerto to begin with the soloist alone, and Kholodenko set a thoughtful and sensitive marker down before the orchestra entered in its different key. Any initial uncertain moments were swept aside as the main themes built and developed with careful joins between orchestra and soloist as Harth-Bedoya balanced his forces well. Kholodenko drew us in with compelling playing, contrasting the quiet with the thrillingly turbulent, no more so than in his exciting cadenza in the first movement. The strength of this performance lay in the contrasts made, exemplified by the angry unison strings in the second movement, defied by Kholodenko's determination to play lyrically and calmly. The effect was like hearing a devastatingly sad story told in an eloquent way to make us sit up and listen. A link straight into the boisterous third movement brought thrilling playing from both soloist and orchestra, with Harth-Bedoya building an exciting sunlit finale after a wonderful cadenza from Kholodenko.

If Beethoven was going deaf when he wrote the piano concerto, he was profoundly deaf when it came to the Ninth Symphony. One can only imagine the struggle he must have had remembering what is was like to hear. Beethoven finally got to set Schiller's Ode to Joy, but in a groundbreaking work that upset symphonic form, he placed the scherzo as a second movement and introduced the human voice in the well known, and difficult, finale.

Harth-Bedoya conducted this piece completely from memory, allowing him to place his four solo singers in front of him, instead of being off to the sides. With no score to look at, it was entertainment in itself to watch conductor and orchestra in direct contact, allowing some spectacular rubatos, cooking up a particularly exciting performance.

From a quiet beginning over tremolo strings the music moved to big bold statement, with sweeping phrases from the strings contrasting with the magical horn entry before the music built to a climax. The second movement is a bit like watching a runaway cart hurtle down a hill, and Harth-Bedoya took the scherzo at what seemed a dangerously fast lick. In a performance full of detail, particularly in the sections led by the bassoons, the playing was furious, but the wheels definitely stayed on the cart. In the slow and intense Adagio, there was a good balance of sound, with soloists coming through well. The pair of variations stood out and the tricky section of links was well managed before anguished gave way to the calm ending.

There are so many thrilling moments in the last movement, not least of which was hearing the seven RTVE double basses belting out the Ode to Joy theme before being joined by the rest of the orchestra. To start with, reminiscences from earlier movements are quoted and dismissed with the timpani sounding like gunshots. The moment we had been waiting for was when the baritone rose from his seat and implored us to "strike up more pleasing and joyful sounds", setting the scene for Beethoven's wonderful finale, here sung boldly by David Menéndez, joined by tenor José Luis Sola, mezzo-soprano Zandra McMaster and soprano Erika Escribá making up the quartet. The biggest thrill in this movement came from the RTVE Chorus, prepared by chorus master Javier Corcuera, who sung never less than thrillingly in a great wash of sound rounding off a very exciting evening.