“The Fifth!” Such was the concise title appearing on the playbill of the Santa Cecilia’s latest symphonic concert, a clear if consciously mainstream homage to a genre that hasn’t lost its hold on audiences. Admittedly, it feels almost redundant to mention that the programme included Beethoven’s fate-driven Fifth (“the world’s most famous symphony”, as countless articles care to advise you); yet in the centuries-old catalogue of fifth symphonies, numerous options come to mind that could be paired with Beethoven’s beloved work. On this occasion the choice fell on Shostakovich’s, itself hardly an obscure, under-represented piece. Together, the two symphonies originated the titanic two-part symphonic organism named “The Fifth!”, the exclamation mark remaining open to interpretation. But while the programme featured some well-known classics, the concert also gave Roman audiences a taste of novelty, marking conductor Jaap van Zweden’s long-awaited debut at the Santa Cecilia.

Jaap van Zweden
© Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

In truth, however, the itinerary drawn up by “The Fifth!” was one of precarious congruity. Much has been said about the elusive quality of Shostakovich’s symphony – its two-fold, ambiguous purpose, the score’s relative simplicity as opposed to the labyrinthine complexity of its meaning and reception. It was perplexing then to have it followed by a work as assertive as Beethoven’s Fifth, the famous opening motif playing the role of a less apt “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!”.

Leading the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, van Zweden tried to ingrain cohesion in the programme by tailoring a specific timbre which he fitted on both symphonies. More specifically, the Dutch conductor seemed to favour a plump, almost woollen sound, largely dependent on the low sections of the orchestra – strings, but mostly brass. Needless to say, Shostakovich’s score isn’t short of moments when emphasis on the lower register proves not only beneficial, but exhilarating and van Zweden didn’t shy away from a head-on, resolute rendition. Yet one couldn’t but notice a dynamic imbalance between sections, the brass often towering over the rest of the orchestra. Despite creating a strong impression, in the long run such saturation proved a little overblown. In this sense, the quieter arc of the third movement stood in stark contrast from the surrounding movements, despite suffering from a certain torpor which is all but absent from the score. Taking Shostakovich at face value is risky indeed; but overall, the performance had its own impetuous charm.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
© Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

Hardly lingering on Shostakovich’s enigmas, after a short break van Zweden kick-started Beethoven’s symphony. This was a curious experience. Rather than an autonomous piece structured in four different but logically-connected movements, the symphony felt like a coda of extended proportions, whose four sections are more similar than the listener is taught to believe. If fate is really to be discerned in the vicissitudes of Beethoven’s score, van Zweden seems to assure us: in our beginning is our end, and both sound grandiose. Once again turning the spotlight on the brass section and inclining towards forte dynamics, the conductor was surely aiming for a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat performance; and indeed the audience’s thunderous applause at the end of the concert proved he succeeded. However, I would argue that the lack of interpretative nuance neutralised what is most electrifying in Beethoven’s score – the sense of narrative where coherence and solidity aren’t and shouldn’t be mistaken for absence of contrasts, as imposing as it may sound.

Elena watched the first half of this concert via a video relay having just missed the start of the performance