Beethoven’s symphonies, except for the Ninth and last, are now 200 or more years old. Yet the transformation he made, in terms of both scale and scope, means that his cycle still occupies the central place in the Western symphonic tradition, which stretches from Haydn to Lutoslawski.
How are they to be played? At this summer’s Proms Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra gave us romantic and rather old-fashioned performances. Andris Nelsons, who has embarked on a season-long cycle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, is similarly romantic in his approach, but – as you might expect – more dynamic and more explosive.
If you vaguely supposed that the Beethovenian revolution only took off with the third symphony, the “Eroica”, this concert would have made you think again. It took in the first two symphonies, framing the later Violin Concerto. True, the First Symphony shows the powerful influence of Haydn, but there is plenty of the younger composer’s individuality in it, including his unique use of a drum roll in the slow movement, and a so-called minuet that is unmistakably a fully fledged, upward-rushing scherzo.
Five quiet drum taps provide the typically original opening of the Violin Concerto, one of Beethoven’s most spacious and genial works. But alas their momentum was not sustained. The soloist, Nelsons’ fellow Latvian Baiba Skride, played with beauty and feeling, but too self-indulgently, and the music more than once nearly ground to a halt.
This was romanticism taken too far, were we listening to Beethoven or Max Bruch? Things got back on track with the Second Symphony, an affirmative but often violently explosive work, with a slow movement of great tenderness beautifully done by the CBS O strings. Nelsons obviously knew the work inside out, as indeed he did the whole programme, and brilliantly communicated his vision to the orchestra,who responded wholeheartedly.