Following a successful two-week ‘Beethoven Boot Camp’ at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, John O’ Conor and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra bring the proceedings of The Beethoven Project to an end with a veritable smörgåsbord of Beethovenian delights.
With a glint in his eye, the inimitable Gerhard Markson directs the orchestra through an evocative performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture (1810). Based on Goethe’s tragic figure Count Egmont, the decisively measured opening F minor chords encapsulate the foreboding atmosphere of the work. Markson and the orchestra breathe as one in these opening phrases. The depth of tone in the strings is at times entrancing, while their interaction with the meandering lines of the woodwind is beautifully balanced. The rebellious Allegro is intelligently paced against the lyricality of the musical idea suggestive of Egmont’s wife, Klärchen. Following a brief development of these themes the overture concludes in Tutti force with great energy from both the conductor and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. Cheers of approval emerge from the balcony of the National Concert Hall as the final chords echo throughout the auditorium.
Once the orchestra and the audience have collected themselves, John O’ Conor appears on stage to resounding applause. An E flat major chord sounds, and O’ Conor launches himself into the fortissimo cadenza of the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto (1809) with expressive ease. His magnificently tender touch in the upper register of the piano captures the beauty of Beethoven’s harmonic colourings. The precision of O’ Conor’s trills is equally balanced against the arching arpeggiated passages. However, towards the end of the first movement, the demands of an allegro rising figure in the left hand escape his fingers, resulting in a few missed notes and a dismissive shrug from O’ Conor. The odd smudge here and there fails to compromise the overall performance, as the audience appears enthralled by the music. O’ Conor’s treatment of the second movement is beautiful. The refined shading and facility of tone, again in the upper register, is commanding. The final Rondo movement is musically exciting but O’ Conor appears to lack the energy necessary to execute the concerto’s robust bass passages against the force of the orchestra. His oftentimes Mozartian treatment of the score is technically effective in places, but it lacks the volume and passion that we have become accustomed to through the likes of those such as Baremboim, Perahia, and Lang Lang. Nonetheless, the audience truly love him as an artist, and following his second recall to the stage, he treats us to a mesmerizing performance of Debussy’s Clair de Lune – a piece requested by, and dedicated to, his daughter-in-law.
Beethoven’s all-too familiar fifth symphony (1808) brings the sold-out night’s entertainment to a triumphant close. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s famous review of the work in 1813 declared that Beethoven’s symphony “sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain, and awakens that infinite yearning which is the essence of romanticism”. Markson and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra capture the essence of Hoffmann’s words with style and technical superiority in their full-bodied interpretation of this symphonic masterpiece.
The combined interpretative efforts of Gerhard Markson, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, and John O’ Conor, successfully illustrates why Beethoven’s music continues to remain a bastion of aesthetic musing.
Beethoven: ‘Egmont’ Overture, Op. 84
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, ‘Emperor’
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, Op. 67 in C minor