With The Classicist, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra begins their year of Beethoven with his first three symphonies, conducted by the APO’s music director Giordano Bellincampi.
These first three are a great little microcosm of Beethoven’s growth and evolution as an artist.
His first symphony, originally performed in 1800, was dedicated to his great friend and patron Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who had also written for Haydn, one of Beethoven’s heroes, for whom this symphony owes a fair bit. Unlike Haydn or Mozart though, Beethoven chooses to create a different emphasis in the orchestra, giving the woodwind section almost equal amounts of work as the strings.
The first movement is very joyful and light, with a lot of this coming from the woodwind section, fantastically played here. There is an exquisite sweetness in the music, especially in the second movement, it’s just beautiful. This sweetness transforms to a more powerful beauty in the third movement with the brass shining, building to the powerful and triumphant conclusion in the fourth movement which ties back to the first movement with that playful and youthful energy back.
Beethoven’s second symphony is in one word, richer: the texture of the piece, the way the instruments worked together, it just feels more cohesive, more thrilling, engaging, exciting. After a powerful and exciting first movement, and a sweeter, softer second movement, reminiscent of the second movement in the first symphony but it feels deeper in terms of tone and style.
It is the third movement which for me was not only the highlight of the second symphony, but of the whole night. There is dazzling brass, stunning strings and woodwind. It is a very short piece, only three to four minutes and it just packs so much in, it’s an amazing little gem. Of particular note, there are these stunning undulations like waves that come throughout the movement, it’s just beautiful. The fourth movement with lots of quick string passages, helps him go out with a bang here not a whimper, it’s full of power, unusual at the time.
The first two symphonies were traditional at the time to a point (Beethoven’s individual flare was already shining through), but with his third symphony- Eroica however, he rips the rulebook apart and does it his own way. For starters, it’s longer than his first two symphonies put together.
Beethoven was relishing the changes happening across Europe with the French revolution and falls of monarchies occurring, with the rise of Napoleon as a freedom fighter and standard bearer for liberty being particularly inspiring to him. The symphony was originally going to be dedicated to, and named Napoleon, that changed rather quickly when Napoleon declared himself Emperor, at which point Beethoven named it Eroica and dedicated it to the memory of a great man.
Whilst these events are fascinating, the real drama and changes were in the music. The changes in the duration of the symphony, the sheer number of ideas, of passion in this symphony were nothing short of revolutionary. It’s described by Christopher Gibbs for instance as a turning point, “not only in Beethoven’s career, but also in the history of music, a stature shared by few other works, such as Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.”
With the first movement you can feel the passion, the excitement, the urge to create coming out so much in there, it’s full of hope and excitement. The second is totally different, darker, moodier, more powerful, alternating with loud and powerful moments sparingly included, the exquistite sweetness from the earlier symphonies coming through here.
It was a fantastic evening, with the APO in brilliant form and Bellincampi was so, not only enthusiastic conducting this stunning music, but genuinely happy throughout, his joyful smile was there the entire time, I don’t think anyone couldn’t enjoy themselves with that passion. Three symphonies down, six to go, it’s going to be a great year at the APO!