MUSIC / And now the real thing: 'At last we have had some distinguished performances': Raymond Monelle on Beethoven at the Edinburgh Festival

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The Independent Culture
The Beethoven theme lumbers on in Edinburgh, with two piano recitals by Richard Goode (Queen's Hall), three concertos played by Andras Schiff, and five more symphonies: The NDR Symphony Orchestra played numbers Five and Six, followed by Four, Seven and Nine played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (all at the Usher Hall). And at last we have had some really distinguished performances.

The grey tide of authenticity has now flowed almost to the shores of living memory. Since we now feel guilty even about playing Elgar at modern pitch, it is good to be given a direct comparison between the bad old days of instinctive musicality and the new era of gut-string correctness. After a fiasco of pseudo- authenticity in the Festival's first week, we have now had the NDR Orchestra, sounding like the Berlin Phil under Karl Bohm, followed by the Ninth Symphony on period instruments.

Though the NDR SO has only existed since 1945, its conductor, Gunter Wand has moulded it into a multi- megatonne instrument that throbs like a great heart-beat and can respond to the merest bob of his shoulders.

The rich centre of the string tone, the golden glow of violins and the opulent double basses seemed totally convincing in the Pastoral Symphony with its extensive string choruses. The woodwind sounded pure and refined - streamlined modern instruments, of course - and Wand allowed no rhythmic exaggeration, no interruption to the flowering of the music.

There was no sentimentality but plenty of red blood in this playing. The Fifth came up new-minted, never too solemn but springing with limitless vivacity. Wand even gave us the unbuttoned sound of brassed horns and a tearaway conclusion to the finale.

Yet the Ninth, reduced to a chamber orchestra of period instruments, was equally impressive. Admittedly, the conductor, Charles Mackerras, is a practical musician rather than a professor of musicology. But the cool sound of the violins with their sinuous long lines gave an intellectual precision to Beethoven's tunes, and the chatter of wind tonguing wittily hinted at the military band which haunts this symphony. There was intensity in the cello and bass recitative that started the finale, and the little 18th-century kettledrums were played with a jungle ferocity.

The four very fine cellists and the 70 choristers of the New Company, sounding at least four times the number, were almost a self-indulgence amidst all this lean, resilient rhythm. I suppose the style was mixed rather than truly 'authentic'. But who knows? Who cares?

Only in the concertos did the proper role of period instruments become plain. Played on a modern Steinway, the Second Concerto sounded heavy, its melodic embellishments turning into congealed lumps. In fresher hands these works might have come off better, but with the London Philharmonic evidently bored and unwilling to pay much attention to the conductor, Bernard Haitink, there was poor ensemble and the fugue in the finale of Number Three almost fell apart. In any case, the stiff playing reduced this movement to a clog dance. The portrayal of the Fourth Concerto as a gentle reverie did not dispel this impression.