MUSIC / Sir Colin Davis makes a Romantic of Beethoven

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The Independent Culture
WHAT WAS Beethoven? A classical composer, or a Romantic? It was a mark of the success of Wednesday's Prom - the Dresden Staatskapelle under Sir Colin Davis - that for a moment the old debate seemed completely settled, with Beethoven established as the first great musical Romantic.

Nobody hesitates to call Beethoven's contemporaries Romantic - a writer like Tieck, or a painter like Caspar David Friedrich. If they were at it, why not Beethoven? 'The Divine is everywhere, even in a grain of sand,' wrote Friedrich - and all the careful notation of nature in his landscape paintings served that one Romantic insight. Mightn't Beethoven have been doing something similar in his own depiction of nature, the Pastoral Symphony?

Babbling brook, thunderstorm, the songs of nightingale, cuckoo and quail, it's wonderful, relaxed music, of course, but there's no doubting the deliberateness of its arrangement. 'We feel as if we were in the concert hall of Nature,' wrote Beethoven's friend, Schindler, of the symphony; and the same man informs us of Beethoven's belief that God was 'in the World and the World in God'. Wednesday's account of the work seemed to lead to just such Romantic conclusions: everything built inexorably towards the great final movement, the 'Happy and thankful feelings after the storm'. No swoony strings or ponderous tempi in the old- fashioned Romantic way; all was rhythmically alive and tightly organised. The last drum rolls of thunder subsiding over the horizon, the Allegretto got under way - and the musical lifting of clouds did indeed seem divine; a true Romantic epiphany.

Only a good orchestra could have done that, and the Dresden Staatskapelle is very good: disciplined enough to know how to act relaxed, and not an over-ambitious soloist among them. They make a wonderful sound: warm, and soft at the edges without - somehow - being ill-defined. The individual instrumentalists too, were spot-on, knowing just how far to step out of the orchestral melee when their number was called. The orchestra's leader who played a delicate solo in a Brahms' First Symphony after the interval (an uplifting performance) gave Sir Colin a courtly half-bow every time the conductor came on stage, and his orchestra took his tune.

It was a struggle, but on Tuesday - when the Staatskapelle was playing the first of its two Proms - I slipped off to the Wigmore Hall. Sir Colin will be returning to London permanently next year as Principal Conductor of the LSO, which was some consolation, and the Lieder recital at the Wigmore wasn't so bad either.

The programme did look strict, it has to be said: the entire Italienisches Liederbuch of Hugo Wolf, containing 46 of the 300 or more songs composed by the Austrian during his short life (Wolf was another of music's casualties to syphilis). Greater claims are made for these songs than for any other of Wolf's sets. He was a portrayer of a 'veritable pageant of humanity', people say, a Wagner of the small canvas, one of the great humorists. 'Not since Haydn,' one American academic even writes, had a composer 'so relished the musical depiction of the insect world.'

A devoted following, then. But somehow the public never ends up loving Wolf's songs the way they do Schubert's or Schumann's. Perhaps EMI hopes that Dawn Upshaw, star of Gorecki's Third Symphony, and Olaf Bar, a great singer, tout court, will help broaden the composer's appeal when their disc of the Liederbuch comes out (release date still uncertain). But I'm not sure. Upshaw's and Bar's performance of the anthology at the Wigmore Hall didn't altogether convince me.

Bar presented no problems. Wolf's songs are subtle things, but this singer (a Dresden man, by the way) was easily the master of their intricacies, riding smoothly over the rhythmic black ice, deploying to great effect an astonishing variety of tone and colour. Bar is also - important in Wolf - a singer who keeps a level head whenever the composer starts cutting up clever.

Upshaw couldn't match him. She sings - and sang - with taste and control, but while Bar was singing Lieder she was doing rudimentary character sketches. Her even, friendly tone isn't enough for this repertoire. Wolf is humorous, he is ironic, and Upshaw's sincerity (she makes an excellent Blanche, the martyred nun in Poulenc's Dialogue of the Carmelites, quite apart from her saintly Gorecki) just wasn't up to the challenge. The best effects were her most obvious in Mein Liebster ist so klein (insect music: 'My darling's so small he gets knocked down by flies'), she even got one of those muffled throat-cleaning sounds out of the audience that suggested we were laughing.

Before last night's Last Night of the Proms, the week at the Albert Hall ended in high American style, with a visit from the Pittsburgh Symphony. They sounded just like American orchestras are meant to: clean, detailed, hard around the edges, and very, very efficient. For their first night Lorin Maazel, their Music Director, chose a showy programme: Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto (well played the young Lithuanian Julian Rachlin); and in Part 1, Rachmaninov's Third Symphony, that dumbfounding work which starts so well and ends so astonishingly badly, with a finale containing dozens of ideas, each of which is a complete dud. Before their encores, the orchestra gave us Ravel's Bolero, a work which contains just one idea but which, when played like it was here, is totally, completely, exhilarating.

Michael White is on holiday.

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