Review: Beethoven Ensemble

JOE CONWAY : ‘Throughout the concerto Arisa Fujita had held the audience spell-bound, especially in the two cadenzas, when you really could have heard the proverbial pin drop.’

Arisa Fujita Beethoven Daniel Hill Joe Conway Trinity

29th May 8pm at Trinity College Chapel. £12/£8/£3 

Conductor Daniel Hill

The advance publicity suggested that this Beethoven Ensemble concert at Trinity was to be a celebratory end-of-exams event, based on folk song and dance. As it turned out it was nothing of the kind. Far from letting their hair down, people in the audience were held in a static, almost trance-like state for much of the evening, hardly daring to stir. Over the top it wasn't, but gripping, deeply moving, and asking all kinds of profound questions it certainly was.

First of all the programme itself suggested high seriousness rather than high jinks. Beethoven's Violin Concerto is longer than Sibelius's Third Symphony, but both works have three substantial movements, with the weight of the musical argument in the first. And yes, Beethoven and Sibelius really do make good bed-fellows despite the century that stands between them. Personally I'd like to think that when the eponymous computer software is long forgotten Sibelius the composer will still be remembered and recognised as one of the greatest of 20th century symphonists. 

Beyond the programming there were similarities in the performances of the two works that were as unexpected as they were uplifting. In the Beethoven concerto the silvery-toned soloist Arisa Fujita emphasised the thoughtful and introspective qualities of the work. Despite conductor Daniel Hill's preference for keeping things moving she pulled back each of her solos with telling effect. Lingering lovingly over the great second subject tune Arisa's playing posed unanswerable questions about why this equivocal melody has the capacity to move listeners so deeply. She even made something as mundane as the high trill which ends the exposition sound significant and memorable.

It was very much to Dan's credit that he took the second movement so slowly, falling in with Arisa's view of the work. There was beautiful and deeply felt playing here from the Beethoven Ensemble strings, and when Arisa reached the mellow second theme it was a moment to cherish. Somehow it didn't sound like iconoclastic middle period Beethoven at all, but like some deeply spiritual moment from the late quartets. I'd be happy to concede that the nicely taken bassoon solo about halfway through the third movement approximated to something a bit more folky. But like everything else in this performance it also aspired towards the serious and sublime. 

Throughout the concerto Arisa Fujita had held the audience spell-bound, especially in the two cadenzas, when you really could have heard the proverbial pin drop. But when the Beethoven Ensemble took its place for the Sibelius symphony after the interval I was expecting a change of gear. Sure enough the scintillating opening theme for cellos and basses got off to a brilliant start. But before long the music began to lose energy, just as it had done in the Beethoven. This is a compliment rather than a criticism. One of Sibelius's great strengths is the way he's able to switch suddenly from urgent onward movement to static stillness. As in the peroration of the first movement when wood and brass stop the flow of the music with a marvellously solemn tune of their own.

Just as in the concerto, the second movement was genuinely slow, its shadowy waltz theme on violins underpinned by all kinds of varied accompaniments, and interrupted unforgettably at one point by a choir of soulful cellos. The finale also featured some stirring playing from violas and cellos at the first appearance of the hymn-like theme that eventually blows the whole work away. The orchestra was at its best here, with all its sections contributing nobly to the unfolding of this great melody. Daniel Hill conducted with gravitas and an unerring sense of climax, and brought the symphony and the concert to an awesome conclusion.