How do you cope with adversity? Do you wallow in self-pity, cursing the world? Or do you, like Beethoven in 1802 on realising that his increasing deafness was almost certainly incurable, draw on all the well-springs of your humanity and give of your finest? Nobody listening to his sunny Symphony no. 2 in D major could possibly conceive of the personal darkness that enveloped him at that particular time.

Yannick Nézét-Séguin
© Manolo Press | Michael Gregnowitz

In the concluding instalment of its Beethoven cycle under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, to be released as live recordings in 2022 by Deutsche Grammophon, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe was once more on superlative form, the strings suitably muscular and sinewy for a composer that does sforzandos to perfection in his Second Symphony, but additionally summoning up huge reserves of sonority in the arching lines of the Eroica’s Funeral March. These are all exceptionally fine players and it was also heartening to see so many British principals among them, especially now that their young compatriot musicians are no longer allowed to participate in the EUYO. Europe, after all, is more than just the EU.

Listening to these two back-to-back symphonies, I was reminded again and again of the lines of John Monsell’s hymn: “Lay hold on life, and it shall be Thy joy and crown eternally.” Had there been no sound, it would still have been obvious from the many smiles on Nézet-Séguin’s face, frequently reciprocated by individual players, how much energising explosiveness was contained in the music and ignited by a conductor unwrapping with relish the sticks of dynamite right from the very beginning, the eruptions of rhythmic force occurring often without warning. There was much to savour in these performances: the surge of power from a COE firing on all cylinders in the codas to the outer movements of the Second Symphony, the razor-sharp precision of the ensemble in that same symphony’s Scherzo, the blistering sounds from the natural trumpets, the commanding horns in the Trio section of the Eroica and the titanic contributions from the hard-sticked timpani throughout.

Yannick Nézét-Séguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
© Manolo Press | Michael Gregnowitz

However, what was equally satisfying was evidence of the musical intelligence behind Nézet-Séguin’s approach. Anybody can do big and loud but it takes special skill to make sense of the darker corners and the softer edges and to unlock the hidden detail. There were many instances of such chiaroscuro: the humming and zinging of the strings with pent-up power in the Eroica’s opening movement or their balletic tip-toeing set against the oboe line in that symphony’s slow movement, and that same instrument’s melting introduction to the minor key section of the Finale, where Nézet-Séguin controlled the ebb and flow quite beautifully, all the notes both in his head and in his heart, teasing out the pulsating rhythms in the double-basses before the final orchestral outcry.

Having been forced of late to endure so many lacklustre realisations of the visual scene, it is also a pleasure to report that Michael Ciniselli’s video direction was excellent. The sound had exemplary clarity and definition.

What if, having penned his Heiligenstadt Testament, which was intended as an elaborate suicide note to his brothers, Beethoven had decided that the severe threat to his existence was indeed too great to counter? What would he actually have achieved after little more than three decades? Schubert was dead at the same age, Mozart lived a little longer. Some nagging inner voice must have persuaded him that he still had much more to give to the world. You don’t need to be working for the Samaritans to realise that a life is never fully lived and never exhausts its maximum potential until the very end.

 

This concert was reviewed from the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden's Digital Festival Hall video stream.

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