Raymond Gubbay Ltd loads the grey interregnum between Christmas and New Year at the Barbican with sundry spectacular delights, such as The Last Night of the Christmas Proms, The Sound of Musicals, Movie Music Classics, and building to the great climax of A Viennese New Year’s Eve Gala. In the midst of this extravaganza stands the Beethoven’s Ninth concert. I attended some years ago, when it was conducted by David Parry, and it was indeed a very joyful occasion, just what the doctor ordered to lift the wintry spirits and arm us with optimism for the New Year.

Christopher Warren Green, © Miel Peters
Christopher Warren Green,
© Miel Peters

The programme booklet was promising, ‘Raymond Gubbay presents Beethoven’s Ninth’ emblazoned in red on the front, on a background of snow and Christmas tree baubles. The notes by Peter Avis were a nicely-judged and entertaining retelling of stories surrounding the creation and performance of the works, with little attempt to describe the music itself - always superfluous when, after all, you are just about to hear it!

The stage was set for festive ebullience, with two Christmas trees jostling for a place amongst the percussion and the double basses, and stars and snowflake patterns projected on the woodwork at the back of the stage. The young Romanian piano soloist, Alexandra Dariescu, came on appropriately dressed in a flamboyant blue dress with sequins beneath the covering gauze, and she gave a very fine performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 5. Her mini-cadenzas following each of the thumping opening chords rocketed the orchestra into the exposition of the first movement's themes - and what wonderful tunes they are! The Royal Philharmonic were at their best here, playing with vitality and attack, with really lively rhythmic propulsion. What I liked best about Dariescu’s playing was a wonderfully uncomplicated sense of melodic expression. We have had a couple of ‘Emperors’ in London lately where soloists seem to be fighting against the unabashed simplicity of Beethoven’s heroic lyricism, as though there were some ‘Postmodernist’ agenda afoot, some twenty-first-century need to question what was on offer. Nothing like that tonight; at this time of year it would have been inappropriate. The melodies made unimpeded progress straight to the heart.

The beautiful slow movement began well, although it was disrupted by a surprising amount of coughing. Nevertheless, it was nicely played, and Dariescu launched herself into the Rondo: Allegro at quite a lick, and with infectious vivacity. On the whole this was just the performance the occasion called for: very enjoyable.

And these are difficult times in which to be joyful, so maybe that was why it was the wistful melancholy of the Ninth Symphony’s third movement (the Adagio) that came off best. The RPO’s strings were especially expressive in their playing of the simple, sad second theme (one of my favourite tunes, imitated by Bruckner in the Adagio of his 7th, and with its falling tone and expressive use of the ‘turn’ perhaps taken up by Mahler in his Ninth), later equally beautifully done by flute, oboe and bassoon. But there was something a bit limp about the strings’ response to the brass and woodwinds’ climactic fanfares, suggesting perhaps a lack of courage and optimism. And then, after the Adagio, things were interrupted by applause to greet the tardy arrival of the extra percussion - as well as four soloists. It’s hard to understand why people who take the trouble to come to perform for us in the finale aren’t allowed the pleasure of hearing the first three movements. As latecomers, you fear they might have missed the story-so-far and have trouble picking up the thread.

My hero of the evening was Matt Perry on timps, with wooden heads in the second movement Scherzo: he at least gave some sense of the sheer obsessive madness of this movement, whereas Warren Green seemed satisfied with an adequate but far from gripping performance. Similarly, the trenchant first movement came over as perhaps a bit lightweight - not that at such a concert we wish to be forced to gaze into the D minor abyss, but we needed a bit more Beethovenian thunder. Even so, the lively momentum was kept up very effectively, and the horns did good work.

But it was in the choral finale that I really missed the joy of it all. Yes, the choirs sang well, very well, and the soloists, though variable, were more than adequate. But what we needed to hear, as we face a New Year that promises to be less than deleriously happy, was a bunch of performers inspired by joy: this is, after all, an ode to joy, and joyful it must be! The feeling was that Warren Green had a job to do, and he did it well enough, but he didn’t quite rise to the special festive intensity the occasion demanded. The audience applauded warmly, though as I watched them put on their winter coats and head for the miserable outdoors I sensed their minds were already on other things: Beethoven’s joyous symphonic finale hadn’t quite been endowed with the transformative power of which it is capable.