Beethoven Symphonies No. 4 and 5 – St John’s Smith Square, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Conductor: Rimma Sushanskaya

The National Symphony Orchestra begin their concert cycle of all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies with this performance of nos. 4 and 5 in St John’s Smith Square. The series concludes in November with symphonies no. 1 and no. 3, the ‘Eroica’. There will be a recording of all nine forthcoming.

The NSO, under the leadership of Matthew Scrivener, is one of the longest-established freelance orchestras in Britain. It has recorded over 40 complete major classic musicals. The orchestra’s principal conductor is Paul Bateman, but it is principal associate conductor, Rimma Sushanskaya who leads them in the Beethoven series.

It’s a treat to be able to hear all nine symphonies, Beethoven’s astonishingly creative musical response to the tempestuous world of the early 1800s. The even-numbered works are often seen as more sedate than the odd-numbered ones, so the pairing of no. 4 and no. 5 works effectively in concert. Robert Schumann called no. 4 ‘a slender Greek maiden between two Nordic giants,’ and the NSO bring out its sweetness and gentle lyricism. It’s a joyful work, often dance-like, particularly in the passages of plucked strings. This large orchestra are light-footed, clearly articulating the work’s different moods.

The iconic motif of Beethoven’s 5th symphony continues to thrill, his contemporary E.T.A. Hoffman writing that No. 5 ‘sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain, and awakens the infinite yearning which is the essence of romanticism’. Are we hearing the hammer blows of fate or a symbol of war-time victory? Modern scholarship, we read in the programme notes, suggests the opening carried a subliminal republican message, Sir John Eliot Gardiner writing ‘had it come out into the open in a city as incredibly reactionary as Vienna, [it] would have had Beethoven incarcerated’. The sheer size of the NSO ensures that their performance gives the work both dynamic power and rich variety.

Conductor Sushanskaya herself, formerly a world-class violinist, talks in the programme of not wanting to be different for the sake of difference: ‘This is Beethoven, and you can’t reinvent Beethoven for yourself!’ To watch her is to see her taut, highly controlled movements. She is not a showy conductor. But you might hope for more of a sense of drama, more evidence of intense communication with the orchestra.

Reviewed on 18 February 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Dramatic, lyrical, taut

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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