The most famous portraits of Beethoven feature the composer wearing a scowl and a furrowed brow. Perhaps conductor Teodor Currentzis, making his BBC Proms debut, was channelling old Ludwig last night. Leading musicAeterna, his Perm-based band, through the Second and Fifth Symphonies, Currentzis scowled and glowered in best Beethovenian manner. But alongside the fierce finger jabs, clenched fists and karate chop arms there were sighs and beatific smiles too, head hanging and wrists flopping at times, like a forlorn Petrushka. Whatever his platform histrionics, the high voltage results Currentzis draws from this Russian orchestra are truly electrifying.

Teodor Currentzis conducts musicAeterna © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Teodor Currentzis conducts musicAeterna
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Currentzis' “maverick” reputation is partly self-manufactured via gnomic booklet notes and interview responses, bulked out by his provocative musical decisions. Last summer, for example, he butchered La clemenza di Tito at the Salzburg Festival, hacking out the recitatives and inserting movements from Mozart's Great Mass in C minor. He enjoys causing storms. He inflames.

Yet there's really nothing in his Beethoven to frighten the horses. Anyone brought up on period instrument performances conducted by Norrington, Gardiner or Harnoncourt will be used to the brisk tempi, the absence of string vibrato, the sharp accents and clipped phrasing, all part of historically-informed period manners. Having the entire orchestra, bar the cellos, standing to play, allowing more freedom of movement, is more unusual, but is certainly not an uncommon sight (the LSO strings stood for Gardiner's recent Mendelssohn cycle). What is remarkable is the playing itself – musicAeterna's Beethoven may come across as rough-hewn, but their tuning is excellent, prone to none of the vinegary woodwinds or vanilla string tone from the early “hairshirt” days of the period instrument crusades.

Teodor Currentzis conducts musicAeterna © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Teodor Currentzis conducts musicAeterna
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Beethoven's Second Symphony was composed at the time when he realised he was going deaf – a terrifying prospect for a still-young composer – and contemplating suicide, yet it's full of life and high spirits. After a D major punch, Currentzis shaped a soft focus introduction where you could sense Beethoven shaking off dark thoughts before launching into a bristling Allegro con brio full of raw energy, double basses scrabbling furiously. Dusky clarinets shone in the Larghetto, Currentzis allowing the music to breathe, an atmosphere of communal prayer. A boisterous Scherzo had plenty of rib-nudging before percussive spiccato snaps near the bridge by cellos and basses added aggression to the humorous finale. Ludwig could wear a smile too. 

Teodor Currentzis conducts musicAeterna © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Teodor Currentzis conducts musicAeterna
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

In Howard's End, E.M. Forster wrote that, “It will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man.” There was certainly something noisily sublime about this performance by musicAeterna, Fate not just knocking at the door, but hammering the door off its hinges, Currentzis impatiently bursting in before the audience applause had died down. A revolutionary fervour crackled through the first movement apart from a magical, curling cadenza where the solo oboe froze time itself. A beautifully cushioned Andante con moto led into the murky world of the Scherzo, strings creating a spectral, swirling fog through which the brass fought to bring us a fierce burst of C major sunlight in the finale. Here the texture was dominated – unusually – by the contrabassoon, played by a giant of a man wielding an instrument that looked as if it could double as a howitzer on the battlefield. It rasped and thundered gloriously, outgunning the trombone artillery just behind. 

Currentzis and his band are taking an entire Beethoven symphony cycle to Salzburg in August. By way of an encore, we had the finale to the Seventh – the “apotheosis of the dance” according to Wagner – in a joyous, exuberant rendition, Currentzis sometimes stabbing the air in a frenzy, sometimes not even conducting at all. Lucky Salzburgers.