Thursday, September 24, 2020

Göteborgs Konserthuset, Götaplatsen 8, Gothenburg, Sweden

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Accelerating second-wave Covid-19 and empty hall notwithstanding, the Gothenburg Symphony, Sweden’s go-getting national orchestra, perseveres nobly, with distinguished visiting artists, discerning programmes and admission-free state-of-the-art audio-visual webcasts. ‘Live’ viewing figures may be modest (low hundreds), but the outreach is far, with recent concerts drawing audiences from North America to mainland Europe, Brazil and Argentina to Greece, Turkey and Iran – a thought-provoking socio-cultural spectrum.

Hosted in English by Andreas Lindahl, along with the GSO’s personable Danish second flautist, Marjolein Vermeeren, and Sten Cranner, the orchestra’s General Manager & Artistic Director, as his informed guests (a model of easy-going music punditry we can learn a lot from), this concert offered two stand-out German Symphonies in C – Schumann’s maggiore Second, dedicated to a king (Oscar I of Sweden and Norway), and Beethoven’s minore Fifth, under it’s ‘Fate’ label, dedicated to a Bohemian prince and a Russian count – conducted from memory by Christoph Eschenbach, eighty last February. With his chelonian demeanour and penetrating eyes, his undemonstrative manner on the podium, Eschenbach rarely displays his emotions in public. In an interview forty years ago I wrote of him even then as “almost disembodied”, a man of “enigmatic bearing [and] cool reserve.” What affect music has on him is hard to gauge. These days, while valuing the intellectually articulate, cleanly shaped performances he gives us, I somehow feel increasingly at arm’s length from the humanity within. Detachment is good only up to a point. This Gothenburg engagement suggested greater relaxation.

Ringing personnel changes between the two works, violas on the outside right, observing repeats, neither Symphony erred on the fast side, which in the case of the Beethoven made for a pleasingly paced Andante, not too con moto, but a marginally restrained Scherzo. Conductors face problems with both scores – getting the start and pauses of the Fifth correct not least, ensuring the initial quaver motif doesn’t come across as a triplet. Always a “scary” moment, Marjolein reminded us – and, in a moment of disarming honesty, for orchestras too. An emphatically ‘thrown’ downbeat saw that everyone survived. Potentially, the Schumann was the more dimensioned statement, Eschenbach crafting determined outer movements and a long-phrased, particularly expressive Adagio – one of Romanticism’s finest poems. From the Haydnesque ‘London’ Symphony opening (horns, trumpets, alto trombone) to a heroically voiced conclusion (solo timpani thundered forth but free of melodrama), there was plenty to hold the attention. Generally, too, most of Schumann’s pianistic caesuras, rubatos and ensemble ritardandos came off. But some of the ‘keyboard’ skeeter runs in the Finale left the violins under-rehearsed (violas, cellos and double basses otherwise), the firsts having already derailed unexpectedly in the four bars leading into the exposition of the initial Allegro.

Cumulatively, Schumann’s Second is an uplifting experience, the more so in light of his depression and darkness and, a memory never far away, the deaths of a brother and sister-in-law during the cholera pandemic of the 1830s. Wanting to endorse its victory, to send a message of “hope”, Eschenbach geared up to the Matterhorn heights with the Finale of the Fifth, the battles of life and music conquered, the Gothenburg cavalry racing at full tilt, marcia at minim mid-eighties, up to the nineties come the reprise, in the closing pages two generals – Per Enoksson, violin, Hans Hernqvist, hard-stick kettledrums – taking imperious, watchful command of the charge. The elation was palpable, the on-edge involvement of the players – separate stands but not that distanced – heartening.