Tie-less in Vienna

18th December 2018

For many people, this time of year is one of reflection. After wondering where the last 12 months have actually gone, we think about the events that have happened during the year, the places we have been, the people we have met, the joys and sorrows we have experienced…

For some reason, the month of December is also conducive to thinking about previous Decembers. I’m not exactly sure why the month should be singled out in this way, rather than any of the other eleven. However, I was reminded of this a few days ago, when a radio announcer, on introducing the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, remarked that the work’s premiere had taken place one December.

The month features significantly in many of the recollections given in An Ordinary Spectator. For example, the second Tuesday in December was traditionally the date of the Varsity rugby match at Twickenham (though it has had a more flexible scheduling in recent years); had Blues been won for spectating, rather than playing, I would have been awarded half a dozen between 1974 and 1979 and another in 2010.

Similarly, the Boxing Day morning rugby league match at Headingley (in which Leeds RLFC played host to one of their local rivals) was a fixed point at which my father and I could catch up with my Uncle Vic and, in all probability, enjoy a Groundhog Day-like conversation about the matches of previous years over a post-game beer. In the book, I recall the occasion on which the Wakefield Trinity stand-off, David Topliss, shredded the Leeds defence (1976) and the year (1969) when the combined weight of the spectators trying to get into the ground smashed down the large wooden gate on the Kirkstall Road, which had been one of several entrances that were closed, and I was swept through by the surging crowd.

A look through my collection of match programmes confirms other December sporting events. Can it really be 41 years since I stood at the Gelderd End of Elland Road and saw Leeds United beat both ManchesterCity and Everton within a few days of each other? Or 39 years since I watched two young girls jumping up and down near me on the terraces of the Abbey Stadium as The Jam’s Eton Rifles was played over the loudspeakers before a Cambridge United/Queen’s Park Rangers game? Or even 10 years since the Glasgow Warriors narrowly lost to Bath in a Heineken Cup group match at the Firhill Stadium in Partick? On that occasion, I recall, I had a perfect view from my vantage point in the Jackie Hubbard Stand of the visitors’ winger – the 6 ft 7 ins Matt Banahan – scoring a try by leaping high for a cross-kick and catching the ball in two hands above his head before falling over the try line.

The radio announcer did not need to tell me that the Pastoral Symphony had been first performed in the month of December. I already knew that. Ten years ago on Saturday – on 22nd December 2008 – a few days after watching the Glasgow/Bath encounter, I was in Vienna for a concert to mark the 200th anniversary of that initial performance.

On 22nd December 1808, Beethoven directed an Akademie – a concert organised by a composer or musician at his own risk and for his own benefit – at the Theater an der Wien. The programme consisted entirely of works receiving their first public performances: the Sixth Symphony, the aria Ah perfido!, the Gloria movement of the Mass in C Major, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fifth Symphony, the Sanctus and Benedictus movements of the Mass in C Major, a solo piano improvisation, and the Choral Fantasy for piano, choir and orchestra.

200 years later to the day, in the same concert hall, this programme was repeated, with only minor modifications, in a performance by the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna, directed by Bertrand de Billy, and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. The soloists were the German soprano Annette Dasch and – greatly to my surprise, as he had not featured in the original promotion of the concert – the pianist Boris Berezovsky.

As the orchestra launched into the Sixth Symphony (which had also opened the original concert, with the Fifth Symphony coming later in the evening), my mind wrestled with a couple of thoughts. The first was the recognition of the sheer scale of the musical outpourings to which that Viennese audience had been exposed two centuries earlier. The power, beauty, subtlety, romance and drama of these new Beethoven works: all in a single evening. Surely, when hearing the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony for the first time, the hairs must have stood to attention on the back of the audience’s collective neck.

And then the second thought: the reality of the original performance itself. The 1808 concert had been – in the words of the 2008 concert brochure – “eine einzige Katastrophe”. The catalogue of disasters is succinctly captured in John Suchet and Darren Henly’s The Friendly Guide to Beethoven: Vienna’s most proficient musicians had been hired to appear at a competing concert, leaving only those that were second rate at best; the orchestra had had only one rehearsal; the inexperienced soprano fluffed her performance completely; the bird song in the second movement of the Sixth Symphony was greeted by audience laughter; Beethoven had to stop the Choral Fantasy and start again after a mistake by one of the performers; the concert hall was bitterly cold; and the programme, running to 4 hours, tried the patience of performers and audience alike. What disappointment and frustration must the composer have felt, as his reputation and emotions were put through the wringer.

The 2008 performance also ran to just under 4 hours, but this time – I am pleased to report – there was no catastrophe. Bertrand de Billy directed the orchestra with authority and calmness. Annette Dasch’s Ah perfido! was clear and commanding. The Fifth Symphony’s final movement – allegro, presto – was nothing less than thrilling. The excellence of the concert hall’s acoustics was confirmed in the dramatic climax of the Choral Fantasy.

Perhaps inevitably, the star of the show was Boris Berezovsky. His performance was one of impressive contrasts, whether bringing his commanding physical presence to bear on the vibrant passages within both the Choral Fantasy and the Fourth Piano Concerto, or, within the latter’s second movement, revealing a delicate sensitivity to hold both audience and orchestra in rapt attention. I also liked the way in which Berezovsky respected the general conservatism of the occasion – wearing a matching grey suit to complement the dress code of the orchestra and director – whilst also, by appearing tie-less, ensuring that he retained his own informal dynamism.

Beethoven and his premiered works survived that freezing cold night in December 1808, of course. The two symphonies and the piano concerto, in particular, are now core items in the classical repertoire. Accordingly, I thought at the time that it was perhaps slightly surprising that the 2008 concert had not seemed to seek a more “international” presentation. The concert brochure was entirely in German and, during the whole evening, the only concession to English was the standard request to switch off mobile phones before the performance started. There were no speeches or tributes to mark the event.

On reflection, that was probably just my misinterpretation of the occasion. Beethoven’s music does not need introductory speeches. The concert itself was the tribute to that evening – both wonderful and disastrous – of two centuries before. And the internationalisation of the occasion was reflected in the performers – the director born in France, the headline soloists born in Germany and Russia, and the soloists in the Choral Fantasy born in Germany, Poland and Romania.

I return to our seasonal reflections. This year, no doubt, they will guided by the recognition that we have acknowledged some major communal anniversaries: the end of the First World War and the extension of the franchise to (some) women (100 years); the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy (50 years); the Lockerbie bombing (30 years), and so on. We will also have remembered the more private dates of significance: in my case, the death of a great uncle on the day before the Battle of Amiens (100 years); a close relative’s “big” birthday (60 years); a particular wedding anniversary (30 years).

And – inevitably and probably by accident – we will have recalled some of the events which, whilst perhaps trivial in themselves, provide perspective and context when remembering the staging posts of life. Sport plays a role here, along with music or theatre or a thousand other activities: my first Ashes test match at Headingley (50 years); a first visit to Twickenham for a rugby union international (40 years). And a routine rugby match in Partick followed by a concert in Vienna (10 years).

The years pass.

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