Beethoven in Vienna, Usher Hall Edinburgh

A musical feast
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The Independent Culture

The age of heroes is past. Or at least, the kind of heroes who could habitually sit through, let alone perform, epic concerts of the kind promoted by Ludwig van Beethoven in Vienna during the December of 1808 and re-enacted here. The RSNO under Günther Herbig began in a relatively low key with the Pastoral Symphony – in fact so low that it all sounded rather routine to start with; with the famous thunderstorm things came alive, and the final song of thanksgiving achieved something of its true serene radiance. Soprano Janice Watson then redeemed one of the disasters of 1808 with a powerful and (mostly) precise rendition of "Ah! Perfido", before the excellent Festival Chorus joined proceedings with an impressive entry out of nowhere in the "Gloria" from the Mass in C.

After a short break (a luxury denied to the original Viennese audience) the second part of the marathon commenced with François-Frédéric Guy as soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 4. Full of youthful fire, and a touch impatient with it, he took quite a robust approach in the first movement to this most lyrical of the concertos, while demonstrating sensitivity and control in the enigmatic slow movement, and a delightful quicksilver dexterity in the finale. His performance went down very well indeed, unlike poor Beethoven's original effort. The RSNO's forces were reinforced for the titanic 5th Symphony, and the result was certainly as loud as that which apparently deafened Prince Lobkowitz at the premiere, though much better played, by all accounts. Here Herbig inspired a really most impressive and exhilarating performance of this perennially extraordinary work – how it must have knocked them back on that first occasion! To start with rhythms were perhaps not as crisp as they might have been, but as the orchestra warmed to its task, in a dignified and not too ponderous andante, and a bouncy scherzo, they worked up through that amazing connecting passage to a real scorcher in the finale.

Which would have made a satisfying end to any normal concert, but on this occasion we still had the "Sanctus" and "Benedictus" from the Mass – the chorus again in fine voice and a well-balanced solo quartet soaring over it all – plus that curious hybrid piece, the Choral Fantasia, to follow. Written specially to unify all the forces at that original fateful event, this is clearly not one of Beethoven's greatest works, but it is rather fun, and pianist Guy made the most of it in the portentous solo opening leading to that funny tinkly little tune. When the vocal soloists and chorus came in for the apotheosis the effect was truly rousing, and we could all go home tired, but happy, after an evening that had lasted just under four hours.

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