Some works are more talked about than performed. In 1901 Debussy expressed his amazement that Beethoven’s Choral had not been finally buried under the mass of prose it had provoked. That was long before the digital age with its gigantic mountains of bytes exploring every aspect of the score. Without doubt Beethoven’s ultimate symphonic statement has had a profound influence on succeeding generations of composers, not least in the way Mahler used choral elements in several of his symphonies. So it was good that in this London Philharmonic Orchestra concert conducted by Kazushi Ono, replacing the indisposed Christoph Eschenbach, we had a kind of entrée to the main work in Magnus Lindberg’s recent composition Two Episodes. This simultaneously paid tribute to Lindberg’s own musical hero.

Kashuzi Ono © Stofleth
Kashuzi Ono
© Stofleth

Except that for all its admirable qualities Lindberg’s sound world is not as extreme nor as startlingly unusual as Beethoven’s once was. Indeed, the Two Episodes can almost be seen as a compressed view of late Romanticism, with thematic elements borrowed from Mahler, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss. It has a very Mahlerian beginning, with screaming trumpets and agitated percussion, and yet the following rapid scales in the woodwind perfectly mimic the same downward descent at the start of the Choral. Both the first of the two episodes, with its many cascades of notes and sense of boundless energy being released from spring-coils, and the second, in which the full orchestra is used more sparingly and with extensive writing for solo instruments, end softly and without demur. Lindberg doesn’t steal Beethoven’s thunder; instead he skilfully teases the ear with repeated references to key rhythmic features in the Ninth Symphony. In this very accessible work we have a compelling combination of astringency and saturated orchestral textures that, taken together, create an intriguing aural experience. The LPO and Ono did full justice to the scintillating range of colour and texture.

There are many ways to set off on Beethoven’s great symphonic journey. Should it have a primeval and mystical feel to those first notes, an awareness of the early germs of an idea emerging from the mists of time? Should it begin with unruffled clarity, each individual line defined and palpable? Ono clearly knows this piece – the score on the stand in front of him remained unopened throughout – but on the evidence of this opening Allegro he sees it more as an empty loom, where the individual string lines, cleanly delivered, gradually form the warp and weft of a larger tapestry. The playing in this first movement was always neat and tidy, with all sections properly balanced and with no personal indulgences. However, shock and awe were never part of this aural landscape. What should have been a seething cauldron began to bubble promisingly at one stage, but never once threatened to boil over. Even in the coda to the first movement there was nothing menacing or threatening. Was this really supposed to be Beethoven the revolutionary?

In the Scherzo, Ono reminded me of Mendelssohn. There was a lightness to the playing, with the harder sticks of the timpani – earlier sounding quite muddied – kept slightly in check. A highlight of the Trio section was a delightful chamber-like delicacy to the contributions of the woodwinds. But was this remotely Bacchanalian in mood? Were the paroxystic contrasts in the score fully realised?

Beethoven intended his slow movement to be a sea of calm and repose after the energy and tumult of the opening two movements. After the earlier disappointments this was where Ono shone. He chose a near-ideal tempo – it is after all an Adagio molto – and obeyed the composer’s additional instruction e cantabile, with smooth transitions and a sensitive moulding of the string lines that eschewed all undue sentiment.

The recitative element from the lower strings at the outset of the finale was powerful but without any great sense of expectation in the following pages. There comes a point where holding everything together in a neat and tidy fashion is simply not enough: this was especially evident in the Turkish elements that didn’t sound at all martial, more like a Biedermeier music-box, in fact. Had it not been for the radiant choral contribution from the London Philharmonic Choir, singing with full and rounded tone, this Choral might just have been killed with kindness. 

In summation, and invoking the famous wedding rhyme, it might be said that this concert was a case of “something old” (Beethoven), “something new” (Lindberg), “something borrowed” (last-minute replacements of conductor and soprano soloist) and “something blue” (Kandinsky’s favourite colour in synaesthesia, which in his view calls man inexorably towards the infinite). Which leaves the final “a sixpence in your shoe”. This is where I have to pass, and leave the rest entirely to your own imagination.