MUSIC / Break with tradition: Anthony Payne on Gunter Wand and the BBCSO's revolutionary way with Beethoven

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The Independent Culture
The delighted applause of the players themselves and a standing ovation from the substantial Royal Festival Hall audience were no more than Gunter Wand deserved after his magisterial interpretation of Beethoven's Eroica symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Sunday evening. Employing a modesty of gesture that concealed his total command, Wand had allowed the vast but always classical momentum of the composer's revolutionary structures to flow with awesome power. Many a conductor has let himself be seduced by the pre-romantic aspects of Beethoven's vision - the palpably heroic drama it seems to embody, the tremendous impact of individual incidents - into indulging in anachronistic games with phrase and tempo. Not so Wand, who channelled the music's overwhelming energies into a classically controlled progress.

The unquenchable impetus which, in the first movement development and coda, as well as in the final variations, brought to mind the cosmic machinery of planetary systems, was sustained to the last, allowing key moments to blaze with individual glory yet building them into an arch that was far more than the sum of its parts.

In carrying out this Olympian plan, Wand drew from his players a splendid clarity of texture and a warmly focused sonority. Time and again details in the wind writing that simply get swamped in performances where surface excitement is the main aim here made their effect without trouble, proving that intensity of expression and meaning have more to do with clarity of texture than weight of sonority.

The hugely extended tonal areas and radically insistent repetitions with which Beethoven fills a new kind of musical space in the Eroica marks an astonishing advance over the processes of the First Symphony, which we heard in the first half of the concert. The journey from that work's essentially late 18th-century classicism to the Eroica's dumbfounding revolution within three years must be one of the most astonishing achievements of any creative artist, and Wand and the orchestra charted it with great spirit.

Because it slots so easily into chamber orchestral concert programmes and is also suitable for student performances, the First is one of the most performed of Beethoven's symphonies. It has become in a sense the poor relation of the series, and is often not accorded the devotion and care which are warranted by its individual relationship to the classical tradition. While there is much in it to remind us that Haydn was still very much alive, there are also hints at revolutionary processes to come and a new tone of voice.

This unique combination of characteristics was presented with considerable rhythmic verve and a delightful freshness of expression. The boldness of the symphony's opening gambit, the originality of its scherzo, the wit of the finale's false starts - all were recreated as if they had only been thought of yesterday, and the wind-saturated textures that rather surprised the symphony's original audience in the Vienna of 1800 here sang out clearly.