Part of an ongoing cycle of Beethoven symphonies from the Symphony Orchestra of La Monnaie under their music director Alain Altinoglu, this concert offset Nos. 1 and 3 with a world premiere by the Swiss composer Richard Dubugnon, called Tombeau de Napoléon. The spirit of the French emperor was, in effect, hovering over much of the proceedings, not only as a direct inspiration for two of the works but, in a less flattering sense, also in the martial approach of some of the music-making.

Alain Altinoglu © Marco Borggreve
Alain Altinoglu
© Marco Borggreve

Tombeau de Napoléon, premiered between the symphonies, was commissioned by Altinoglu and La Monnaie as a pendant for their Beethoven cycle. Mindful of Beethoven’s Eroica and its famous funeral march, Dubugnon decided to write a threnody for Napoleon Bonaparte, this towering historical figure who continues to be, for most people, a bundle of contradictions and seemingly incompatible achievements. Dubugnon sees his creation as a manifesto against war and boundless ambition but, at the same time, as a lament about shattered ideals and a reflection of his own love for a united Europe, often (wrongly) considered to have been a Napoleonic dream. Beethoven’s An die freude makes a veiled appearance in Tombeau, yet it is the Dies irae theme and a generally downbeat mood that pervades the work.

Some 15 minutes long, in a slow-fast-slow form, Le Tombeau de Napoléon wraps a taxing solo part for tenor trombone in a dramatically compelling and sonically thrilling canvas. The orchestration is elaborate with a large percussion section, including different drums, vibraphone, gongs and recorded bells. Jan Smets, solo trombonist with La Monnaie, played with tremendous cool and characterised the work’s changing moods with panache, moving effortlessly from the anguished slower parts to the almost comical passage with funky rhythms and bebop phrasing in the middle section. In perfect rapport with the soloist, Altinoglu and the orchestra mined the work’s dramatic scope with great impact. Most impressive were the sonic surges in the slow sections, accompanied by some the most lugubrious bells ever, and the final sigh from the trombone meant to represent the emperor’s last breath. Great stuff.

However, this was foremost a Beethoven programme and, in this respect, the result was less convincing. For sure, there was plenty to admire about Altinoglu’s Beethoven, not in the least his dynamic approach and vivid projection, and there is no denying he has a good bond with his orchestra. Unfortunately, though, orchestral tone and finesse aren’t qualities one would readily associate with La Monnaie.

Altinoglu used a smaller formation, anchored on four double basses for the First Symphony, six for the Third. His conducting was energetic, with brisk tempos and generally well-judged dramatic emphasis, but there was very little depth and variety of colour in the playing. What the Monnaie Orchestra doesn’t have is a distinct sound – or much variation in it. The classical elegance and healthy élan that Altinoglu still ensured in the first movements of the First Symphony, for example, gave way to a drum-and-brass martial character in the Menuetto and the final movement. The more forward-looking Beethoven became, the less attractive the sonority. Some over-emphatic accentuation marked by prominent, hard-edged timpani and abrupt brass interventions quickly grew weary.

Similarly, after the interval, Altinoglu rushed into the Eroica before the audience applause had died down (a sad practice which seems to have become trendy) and while the sweep was undeniably exciting, even with the exposition repeat included, it also undermined some of the symphony’s gravitas. Woodwinds replied attentively, but the string sections acted as a massed ensemble, while basses and cellos, all gathered on the right, lacked the proper weight to make the Marcia funebre really count. The plaintive oboe could have used more breathing space and the passage in the major mode felt merely hurried. A vividly played Scherzo, with the thus far disappointing horns finally finding their moment of grace in the Trio, and a lively finale brought no further surprises, even if in execution it was Napoleon rather than Prometheus that seemed to have the final word.

Of course, these are just two of the symphonies and eventually the final judgment will have to be made after the cycle is completed. But on account of this concert, it seems very unlikely La Monnaie’s Beethoven will strike many sparks.