Beethoven 5 and 7 from Andrew Manze and the NDR Philharmonie

Beethoven isn’t my go-to composer. Never has been.

There’s nothing wrong per se about the man’s music. There is melody. There’s drama. In his symphonic works especially the textures in his orchestral writing are highly satisfying.

The problem is (or maybe it’s not a problem) I admire the creative achievement in the same way I admire a beautiful woman: I see it (her/them/they), I just don’t respond to it.

This odd position on Beethoven’s music (some would say contrary) is not fuelled by my usual resistance to hype of the kind we’re no doubt going to experience when Beethoven 250 gets into full swing this year. Sure, I’m curmudgeonly and despise following a herd of sheep. No. this is because there’s a hint of Beethoven leaving me cold.

But. This.

Tasty cover design; tasty typeface; brilliant music making.

Andrew Manze conducts Beethoven’s 7th symphony with the NDR Philharmonie in a release out last Friday. And it may possibly be a recording which helps me determine my ‘way in’ for appreciating Beethoven, if not actually responding to him emotionally.

Manze’s career is quite something. Back in the early days of my short-lived arts admin career, Manze was powerful force in the world of historically informed performance, in 1996 asssuming the associate directorship of the Academy of Ancient Music.

At that time there was an implicit assumption that this was the world Manze would continue to inhabit because of his in-depth knowledge, expertise and resulting reputation.

His appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for the 2018/19 season threw light on a career I had overlooked. One which on closer inspection reveals a seamless and early transition from baroque to full-scale symphony orchestras in a relatively short space of time: 2006 working with the Helsingborg Symphony; 2008 with the Norwegian Radio Symphony; four seasons with the BBC Scottish; plus a whole host of guest spots with international bands to boot.

I think I can detect his historically informed roots in many of his subsequent symphony orchestra recordings. I hear a drier, tauter, earthier string sound thoroughout the first movement of his Beethoven 3 with Helsingborg. In fact, the strings in the second movement especially in the oh-so-quiet sections are a thing to behold – a kind of delicate precision that makes me think the idea of which can only have originated from those ‘authentic performance’ days.

And bringing out instrumental voices normally lost in the mush of a romantic sound can only be something that draws on his historically informed performance days (the opening movement of Brahms 1 on CPO from 2012 with Helsingborg features a bassoon line like I’ve never heard in Brahms’ epic symphony).

Whilst I’m not quite so enthused about his Mendelssohn ‘Italian’ with NDR from 2018, I do have this inkling that maybe the latest NDR release of Beethoven 7 is something great because of the way it echoes those same characteristics I hear in the Helsinborg Beethoven 3. If that really is the case, then its Manze who’s making that happen, because that’s the point of consistency.

There’s a starker string sound in the Beethoven 7 release, most evident in the opening of the second movement. Drier. Deader. Smoother. Everything has a chilling feel: not frightening; just something imperceptible; a question in search of answer.

And sticking with the second movement, there’s a committment to drawing out detailed articulation in the bass line. A mushier more romantically driven interpretation would gloss over those details, but here everything is given the necessary space for display.

At the same time, Manze’s speeds give the work fleet of foot. No one is languishing in tawdriness. The pulse keeps thing moving on. There is life, drive, tenacity and determination throughout.

And come the prompt final movement the all important detail that has driven things throughout is given its moment. Never has a grinding pseduo pedal-note bassline been quite so needed nor so gratifyingly experienced as 7’08” onwards. Props to the horn section whose taut articulation in the high register is something to behold. And at the time of writing I can’t quite put into words what I’m hearing at 6’32”, but I want to call on it whenever I’m in need of a bitter dispute, because with that kind of explosives in your armoury you’re bound to win the battle.

Does this recording make me love Beethoven? Does it make me think I might learn to love Beethoven? I’m not sure yet. But it does help me understand one way to appreciate his achievement: detail. There is so much detail to be heard in Beethoven’s music.

There are two bittersweet thoughts which emerge from that observation.

First, the inherent pathos in the story of a man who couldn’t hear but scored so much detail in his manuscripts.

Second, the present day assumption pedalled by those who claim to champion classical music that newcomers will be frightened off by detail.

Here is a composer whose love of detail was arguably fuelled because of his impairment.

And yet we deny the thrill of his music to those who don’t know it because we condescend that newcomers won’t understand or appreciate that detail? Tsk.

Listen to Beethoven 5 and 7 from NDR Philharmonie and Andrew Manze on Spotify

London Chamber Orchestra with Oliver Zeffman

London Chamber Orchestra plays Waley-Cohen, Mozart and Sibelius at Cadogan Hall

Technically speaking, this isn’t a concert review. Some of the experience was hampered by my unpredictable and still hacking cough, meaning I needed to duck out of the concert temporarily. Never have I been forced to leave auditorium quite so soon after a much-anticipated Concerto performance began, nor received such a clear signal so swiftly to do so as I did from the curmudgeonly audience member sat beside me.

So I ended up spending 30 minutes listening to George Li play Mozart 23 via the Cadogan Hall foyer monitors, clear enough to hear some moments of mildly disappointing intonation from the woodwind in the second and third movements; denied the opportunity to languish in LCO’s efficient lush string sound. Li’s encore (I forget what it was – Chopin?) was spectacular, prompting those of us in the foyer to lean in, focus and take a much needed moment to pause and reflect. Electrifying stuff.

Once a number of Strepsils had been administered I rejoined my plus one Lorna at the back of the auditorium for the second half performance of Sibelius’ 3rd.

Neither of us had heard it before. For Lorna it was only the second or third time at a classical music concert.

The back seat of the stalls isn’t a bad place to listen. The balcony overhang creates a cosy feel but doesn’t affect the acoustic adversely. The LCO played with spirit, enviable precision, warmth and ebullience – it makes a massive difference to me to see musicians visibly enjoying what they’re playing. Great energy exuded from the stage creating three movements of wonder and delight. I was transfixed.

The second movement in particular had a tenderness about it that was both playful and maybe even flirtatious. The gentle syncopation gave things a flirtatious feel. Deft. Listening back to Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic, it is the gentler pace adopted by conductor Oliver Zeffman with the LCO this week that I respond to more immediately. There was lift and drive, but a genteel kind of pace that created an appealing whole.

Word too on Zeffman whose generous confident conducting style seemed to draw out key musical lines throughout the concert, empowering musicians to shine. Sometimes I wanted him to take his time walking onto the stage in order to establish a more assertive presence when facing the audience. But there is a charming enthusiasm and pride in his work and the band he conducts. A strong horn section drove the Sibelius forward in the moments it needed it.

Freya Waley-Cohen’s UK premiere of Changeling displayed some enviable melodic lines for bass clarinet and violin, spikey string sequences, and enticing atmospheric scenes full of mystery and portent. A busy week for Waley-Cohen too – present at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday and at Wigmore Hall for a premiere the following day.

London Chamber Orchestra are back at Cadogan Hall on 9 February and 25 March 2020. They appear at St John’s Smith Square on 6 May 2020. They are heartily recommended.