Wednesday, May 13 & Friday, May 15, 2020

Göteborgs Konserthus, Götaplatsen 8, Gothenburg, Sweden

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s Beethoven with the Göteborgs Symfoniker in October 2018 – the burgeoning First and Second Symphonies – offered a mixture of fiery brilliance and eccentric tempo aberrations. A young man and class orchestra treading familiar waters, yet he was still somewhat on a Classical learning curve. The freedoms and caesuras you can get away with in late-Romantic or epic twentieth-century repertory only unsettle when you apply them to Haydn/Mozart or Beethoven/Schubert.

At their most positive, his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies (respectively May 13 & 15) combined respect and elation with paragraphs of elegant, elongated perspective. Muscular, big-boned, motivic development sections (albeit in the Eighth palpably removed from his confessed “childish, pastoral, don’t take the music too seriously” intention), arguments fiercely driven home, foundational bass-lines (notably interrelated in the oceanically pedal-pointed codas of the Seventh’s outer movements), and spot-lit orchestral detail,  less blended or rounded than sharply, coloristically primary (woodwind, brass and combatant kettledrums balanced on a foreground high), characterised both.

Neither, however, was without controversy. Rouvali likes point-making even when, conceivably, there isn’t one to be made. Pulling back into the rising scales of the Seventh’s introduction, for instance; then, later, turning offbeat staccato string attacks into accented tenutos, bars 125/127, radically altering the persona of the passage, further deliberated at the same point in the exposition repeat and reprise (only in the latter, presuming them obvious, do the autograph and first edition omit the dots). At times a near Mengelberg-ian attitude to tempo surfaced with several pulses operating in the opening Allegro; suddenly quickened semiquavers in the Allegretto, bars 183ff; and a tendency in the Scherzo to hasten and short-change phrase endings before opting for a progressively expanding palette in the Trio episodes, creating an uneasy ‘period’/Romantic dichotomy. The hell-for-leather Finale raced a road close to running out of oxygen, a visceral current somewhere at its core but one in the end pugilistically over insistent, knock-out blows raining down without respite. Napoleon wouldn’t have stood a chance. At the end one cheered, but more out of relief than anything else.

The Eighth was strongest in the first movement (resonantly chorded cadences, the pre-war fabric of the Konserthus playing a role). Least persuasive (architecturally) in the Finale. Urbane in the conversationally slanted second (at around quaver=82/80 to Beethoven’s 88). Not every decision prevailed. The first movement’s stressed luftpause third beat of bar 11 (exposition, repeat). Its exaggerated closing two-bar ritardando. Unpredicted turns in the Minuet: changed agogics; extended fermatas flanking the Trio; the sudden più mosso for the final clause, as if to say (goblins making mischief) let’s go home, enough of these repetitions. Rouvali’s dynamics, like various of his articulations (the second movement’s lengthened string staccato, bar 31, surprised), left other impressions. Working up a fevered head of steam in the first movement development led, inevitably, to nothing being left for the fff reprise, the theme lost among cellos, double basses and bassoons (a tricky corner Weingartner felt the necessity to address more than a century ago). Elsewhere the gratuitous woodwind echo at bar 44 of the Allegretto affected a charm of sorts … but the contrivance and grammar of its placement posed questions. Adorning Beethoven is a risky business at best.

Rouvali, a boyish, engaging presence, happy to be pleased with himself and his musicians, trained as a percussionist. Rhythmic precision matters. “Sometimes I hate myself for being too rhythmical”, he told Andreas Lindhal by way of introducing the Seventh. “Rhythm is like people walking, the basis from which everything starts. An orchestra [through score and conductor] should sense rhythm first, then the harmony … then music can happen. It takes a lot of work. That’s what we’ve been rehearsing. The key to Beethoven? I love his minimalism, the repetitions, the sforzatos [stabbing a pattern with his right index finger]. How to build a climax, where the line is going via the sforzatos, thinking that back-beats have become front-beats – get this right, then you succeed.” Rouvali’s Classical manner, his models and interventions, may raise eyebrows – you wonder how an Eroica or Choral might survive – but that he’s a new-generation conductor bent on finding his own way, spurning the status quo, loving life, is to be lauded. He gets us to listen, like the result or not.

Hosted in English and Swedish by Lindhal, with informed contributions from American bassoonist Kaitlyn Cameron and principal cellist Johan Stern, as well as the orchestra’s artistic director, Sten Cranner, each concert included a contrasted first half. On the Thirteenth there was Fanny Hensel’s Overture in C-major – a work from the early-1830s (published in 1994) as fluent as anything from the pen of her more famous brother, Felix Mendelssohn. A broadly ‘straight’ account, cumulatively heroic, signed off with a theatrically weighted ‘Freischütz’ final chord. A scintillating performance of Stravinsky’s E-flat Dumbarton Oaks Concerto followed, a canvas, as Stern put it, taking “the Classical style to an absurd corner.” With a yellow pencil substituting for mislaid baton, Rouvali relished every rhythm, slur and dot, delighting in the phrasing, exchanges, accents and sensual grace of the second movement, and crafting a third teasingly poker-faced.

“Fanfares for princes, courts and kings used to be everyday food”: “dedicated to all those affected and those who are struggling”, Friday’s Covid-19 programme, emphasised modern man generic, the concept of fanfare signalling that “community in difficult times, like music, knows no bounds”. Copland’s Fanfare for a Common Man (1942) was handsome and golden, one of the best coordinated audio spectacular narratives to come my way in a while. Offsetting its starry American vastness, Joan Tower’s response, Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (1986), dedicated to the young Marin Alsop, struck a busy, urban, virtuosic note, precision brass and percussion at a premium. Copland’s Quiet City (1939-40) and Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936) provided emotional balm, Per Ivarsson (trumpet) and Mårten Larsson (exchanging oboe for cor anglais) weaving a consummate dialogue in the former, and the reduced strings of the Göteborgs Symfoniker (violins to the left, cellos and basses to the right, physical distancing guidelines ensuring separate desks for each player) unfolding a spare beauty in the latter. Giving himself, and the orchestra, time to breathe, Rouvali the painter and poet invited contemplation, the music suspended in silence and isolation, cleansed of sentimentality. No audience no coughs no applause. Magical.