Some traditions never die, especially at the Proms. The Last-But-One Night was traditionally the occasion for Beethoven Nine, and although it has been moved around the schedules in recent years, it has continued to appear in almost every season. This year, it returns to its rightful place, the Friday night warmer-upper to the grand finale on Saturday, in an appropriately grand performance by the Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Alan Gilbert © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Alan Gilbert
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Riccardo Chailly had been scheduled to conduct, but a broken arm a few weeks before ruled him out. Alan Gilbert was a surprising stand-in, a conductor of arguably equal prestige, but one with a very different style, less insistent on interpretive innovation, and more interesting in bringing out the best from the orchestra. Ideas were occasionally lacking, especially in the first movement, but the performance got better as it went along, building up to a stunning finale.

But first up: a modern take on Beethoven from Fredrich Cerha. His Paraphrase on the Opening of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 is sympathetic to its model, although the relationship is complex. Cerha tells us that he was inspired by the falling fourths at the opening of Beethoven’s symphony, and that he uses these as the basis of his work. And so he does, taking the idea to an absurdist extreme. It’s quite revealing in a way; listening to Beethoven Nine afterwards, all those descending fourths that link the movements together suddenly jump out of the texture. Cerha’s piece follows the pseudo-electronica ideas of Ligeti – everything here is about gradually evolving textures. It is simply structured, gradually building to a climax about ten minutes in through processes of textural accretion and accelerando. Then there is a long, quiet postlude, plaintive woodwind solos and unturned percussion effects over a bed of pianissimo strings. The piece cleverly feeds off the Beethoven. You couldn’t programme it on its own, but the symbiotic relationship it creates with the symphony enriches both works.

The opening of the Beethoven was surprisingly matter-of-fact, with a brisk tempo and a moderate dynamic, but Gilbert soon started pulling things around, shaping phrases, anticipating attacks, emphasising dynamic contrasts. But many of his decisions here seemed arbitrary. In some passages he would stick to a metronomic pulse, while in others he would apply quite extreme rubato, but without any clear reason why he would switch from one to another. Fortunately, all the set-pieces worked well, especially the build-up in the coda, leading to a suitably dramatic and decisive conclusion.

From the second movement onwards, Gilbert relied more on the sheer beauty of the Gewandhaus sound to carry the music through, and for the most part that worked well. The Scherzo could have been flaccid-sounding with such a reliance on the rounded string tone, but was kept focussed and rhythmic by the contribution of timpanist Tom Greenleaves. Even with his impressively nuanced range of dynamics and attacks, he always carried across the orchestra, giving incisive interjections to shape and propel the music.

That big, warm Gewandhaus sound came into its own in the Adagio. Even at the quietest dynamic, this string section is able to fill the hall. Some excellent wind solos here – the fourth horn solo was thiefed by the principal, as tradition dictates, but he made an excellent job of it. The woodwinds principals excelled here too.

One big surprise in the finale: the first statement of the Ode to Joy theme, in the cellos and basses, was taken right down to a whisper. An effective dramatic device – a distant starting point for a long journey. The finale was easily the best part this performance, confident, bold, assertive, and above all, joyous. The large chorus performed well as an ensemble, and Gilbert was able to draw some subtle dynamics and phrasing from them. The four vocal soloists would have been better placed at the front of the stage, but from up behind the orchestra blended more into the ensemble. All four were strong, and suitably operatic of tone.

This was a grand finale to a proper, big-boned Beethoven Nine, old-fashioned in all the best senses. Some aspects of the early movements didn’t quite gel, but it all came together for the finale. Quite a conclusion, and Saturday night’s festivities will have a tough job beating this.