Review: BBCSSO does Beethoven’s 1808 Academy Concert

First published in the Guardian on 4 October, 2016

It’s the ultimate success story in DIY music promotion. A few days before Christmas, 1808, Beethoven rented out a performance space (Vienna’s Theater an der Wein) and organised arguably the most momentous concert in history. The hall was cold, the musicians were underrehearsed, at one point the performance was so shambolic it fell apart and had to be started again, yet the public stayed for four hours of new works including the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, movements from the Mass in C, the Choral Fantasy. “To judge all these pieces after only one hearing,” noted the overwhelmed critic of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, “especially considering the language of Beethoven’s works, in that so many were performed one after the other, and that most of them are so grand and long, is downright impossible.”

There is a paradox in reconstructing newness. What the freezing Vienna audience heard that night was totally unprecedented use of musical theme, harmony, form; what the comfortably heated Glasgow audience heard when Thomas Dausgaard staged the same programme with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on Sunday afternoon was the most familiar music in Western culture. We’ll never know what it’s like to experience the Fifth’s opening for the first time — maybe honouring Beethoven’s spirit means programming four hours of today’s newest scores. But this was still a worthwhile exercise because somehow the works seemed both more radical and less individually hyped when piled on top of each other, a cumulative marvel of what can happen when experimentalism is given a proper platform.

Taking the place of Beethoven as soloist was 21-year-old Jan Lisiecki, hotly-tipped Canadian pianist who coped phenomenally well with the grandeur of the Fourth Concerto, the Choral Fantasy and the G minor Fantasia. His sound is forthright and his attack is determinedly daring — not the dark volatility I imagine of Beethoven’s own improvising but assured enough to sparkle and command. The choral works benefited from the forceful, nuanced singing of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Voices; the vocal soloists (soprano Malin Christensson, alto Clara Mouriz, tenor Stuart Jackson and bass Benjamin Appl) had their own dicy 1808 moment in the Benedictus from the Mass in C and elsewhere Mouriz and Appl out-glowed their colleagues. In the dramatic aria Ah! Perfido, Christensson pushed for high drama but sacrificed her light, bright edge.

This was Dausgaard’s second programme as new chief conductor of the BBCSSO and it gave a better glimpse than his first of what he’ll bring to the orchestra. There’s a transparent, chamber-like sound that came through beautifully in his brisk, intelligent accounts of the symphonies — less rich and resplendent than what his predecessor Donald Runnicles got from the strings, more questioning and alert. A Dausgaard trademark seems to be the power of the understated build, keeping tension simmering then letting key phrases really soar. There’s scope for more of the latter but it’s early days yet.