Markus Stenz conducted a lean and crisp performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony which remained unsentimental and lively throughout, prefaced by a nostalgically sunny Dvořák Cello Concerto with soloist Miklós Perényi.

Markus Stenz © Catrin Moritz
Markus Stenz
© Catrin Moritz

Stenz’s plan for the Beethoven was perhaps clear from the seating plan, from just six desks of first violins to two desks of double basses. The strings were symmetrically split, with violins opposite each other and cellos and basses split either side of the central violas. This gave a clear, well balanced sound which never threatened to become ponderous or laboured. Even in the funeral march of the Adagio, the pared-down sound was only allowed to intensify briefly at the movement’s climax, here more suggestive of anger than grief in some brassy horn playing. Certainly, reserving strong emotion until late in the movement avoided an overly desolate atmosphere.

The first movement flowed with great charm and grace, conducted mostly in one in a bar, and there were many pleasing interpretive touches in passages held to effective pianissimo and dynamic shaping of phrases around melodic contours. It was over in a flash, as was the equally light Scherzo, where dancing woodwind soloists interacted well with very precise string playing. The trio’s horn calls were unusually brassy, which added to the sense of bounding energy. The same was true of the horns’ treatment of the fourth movement’s theme later, optimistic and youthful rather than heroic.

After launching into the Finale without pause, Stenz very much highlighted that this is a set of variations (on a theme from the finale of Beethoven’s Prometheus ballet), treating it as such with distinct junctions and small pauses between sections. Some, like the minor-key passage, were fiercely quick, though not at the expense of clarity, and the transparent sound paid dividends in the outer movements’ counterpoint. The final section closed the evening boisterously. This was a clean, forward-looking performance which consistently shied away from big displays of tragedy and heroism in an interesting take on this seminal work.

It may have been pure chance, but it was also interesting to hear Dvořák’s final symphony and his cello concerto on consecutive nights at the Bridgewater Hall. (My review of the Dresden Philharmonic’s performance the previous night is here.) The concerto was completed in 1895, two years after the New World Symphony, and was the last work the composer wrote in America. The concerto has many Czech flavours, Dvořák perhaps missing his homeland, and this was expressed as warm nostalgia in the outer movements alongside tender anguish in the Adagio.

Hungarian Miklós Perényi was soloist. He gave some beautifully expressive playing in the slow movement, echoed by pleasantly gentle woodwinds and particularly lyrical clarinets. The winds were very receptive to Perényi’s rubato in accompaniment to his sun-suffused first movement. The third movement was well balanced by Stenz in its journey from part-march, part-dance opening, via bombastic swagger, back to the smiling warmth of the first movement. All were done convincingly, but it was the first movement’s themes which left the greatest impression. The final stormy outburst was subsequently hard to take too seriously, the mood firmly reflective and contented.

Both of tonight’s works could have been given greater emotional weight, but these relatively restrained performances were far from disappointing, and the Beethoven in particular was very enjoyable in this slightly scaled-down format.

***11