Queen Elizabeth Hall, 15th May 2018
Beethoven – Symphony No 7 in A Op 92
Spira Mirabilis is a group of talented young musicians from around the world who play in various European orchestras. They hole up in Formigine in Northern Italy near Bologna to learn from each other and devote themselves to intensive study of major orchestral works of the canon which they then take around Europe to entertain us punters, and, more importantly, show us how it is done. I suspect they also have a bit of craic along the way.
The twist is that they have no conductor. Which means, in the spirit of a chamber ensemble, they have to “immerse themselves in the score with the aim of reaching an interpretative consensus on a shared vision and a complete synthesis with the work”. Now if you thought that the conductor of an orchestra, as I did a few years ago, was just there on the podium to provide a bit of visual light relief, you would be very much mistaken. Someone has to impose a musical vision on even the most detailed score involving all manner of decisions on tempi, dynamics, who does what where, when and why, and all manner of other stuff way above my pay grade. If you dump his or her direction then I imagine you are collectively setting yourselves up for one hell of an away day. Yet this is exactly what they do with the intention then of trying to explain to us how they did it. Wonderful.
In this case they just happened to pick, IMHO, the most perfect piece of music ever written. I believe Beethoven to be the greatest of composers, the symphony to be the most complete musical form and this to be his best. Though I can see why others might disagree with any and every part of that statement. Moreover I admit that there are individual pieces by modern composer/performers in popular music genres that would just edge it for me on the eponymous desert isle. (I should probably post something on that).
Spira Mirabilis have in fact already been through an entire Beethoven cycle, good call, so this constituted something of a revival. Yet there was still a palpable sense of excitement in the Hall ahead of, and through, this performance. When Beethoven wrote this his hearing had significantly deteriorated and he had retired to the spa town of Teplice in order to gee himself up. There is no programmatic intent, unlike its predecessor the Pastoral, yet it is an astonishingly uplifting, happy work. That maybe because it is essentially dance music. Anyway it was a hit from the off and it is easy to see why.
The first movement starts slowly but when the “dotted” rhythmic figure finally kicks in LvB proceeds to push and pull it around in so many ways that it barely seems plausible that it can tolerate this level of innovation. If you ever need to understand Beethoven’s genius in taking simple material and wrestling it into music of unparalleled emotional and intellectual power through progressive variation, it lies here. This is the longest movement of any of the symphonies.
Then there is the Allegretto. A funeral march where the ostinato is repeated and repeated until it attains monumental proportions. Strings largely in minor keys, woodwinds take the major. If you need to give someone important to you a good send off, alive or dead, this is the music you need. It is the most hummable tune ever written. The Presto that follows is joyous and funny and contrasts with its central hymnal trio and the Finale cuts loose completely. I’ll warn you. Avoid sitting next to a fat bloke, likely in shorts, probably leaning forward, imperceptibly wiggling his fingers, in time just about, if the Finale of the Seventh should be playing. He might just start sobbing. With joy. Truly pathetic.
It takes a marvellous performance to overwhelm me and I have to confess this wasn’t quite there. It was insightful in glimpses, especially in the third movement, the negotiation between the players was intriguing and there was a slippery quality I liked. Tempos were sensible but I might have preferred something a little brisker in the first two movements, especially in the second subject of the Allegretto. But I still think the necessary compromises made everyone hold back just a bit. A sense of “after you Claude”. I am all about consensus in the “real” world but in the realm of the creative democracy can only take you so far.
I also have to confess that I didn’t stay for the post match replays and interviews. No good excuse other than wanting to see the SO and LD that evening. Though they of course completely ignored me when I got home early. I discovered that Spira Mirabilis had repeated the second movement, this time whilst randomly sitting in the audience. Damn. I wish I had stayed for that.
Still overall a fine performance of a transcendent work intriguingly delivered.