Showcase of authentic instruments

REVIEW / CONCERT

PHILIPPE HERREWEGHE CONDUCTS BEETHOVEN

Orchestre des Champs-Elysees, Philippe Herreweghe (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Friday

The Orchestre des Champs-Elysees (Orchestre des CE) from France made its Singapore debut with two Beethoven symphonies, performed on "authentic" instruments - instruments that would have existed in the composer's lifetime.

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Publicised as a concert that would feature the music played in the way the composer had meant it to be heard, conductor Philippe Herreweghe treated the audience to a refreshing and enlightening concert.

The opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the four notes said to symbolise fate, were brisk and dramatic, but less weighty than usual. This was to be expected from 17 violins using gut strings, fewer than in a modern symphony orchestra, and wind instruments without valves or keys.

On the other hand, there was a delightful transparency and tremendous fleetness of sound. Balance between winds and strings was effortless, so natural that it was almost taken for granted all evening.

The horn parts in the symphony took on greater prominence than usual, as the valveless "natural" horns used have a sonority akin to that of raucous hunting horns. With this instrument, a few notes of the scale need to be "stopped" (partially closed by hand) for the sake of tuning, but this was how horns were played through the early Romantic era and composers of the time understood well which notes and keys to use to get the desired sonic effects for their works.

This smaller scale of sound of the orchestra was alluded to in the Esplanade's pre-concert announcement to silence phones and refrain from photography. But an unfortunate lapse in protocol saw latecomers trickling into the hall and making their way to their seats as the conductor started the second movement.

Period performance practice includes a marked reduction in the use of continuous vibrato by the strings, a practice that became widespread only from the early 20th century. Applying judicious vibrato to highlight emotion and expressiveness was especially effective in the second movement, giving it exceptional sensitivity.

The conductor's third movement was brisk, to the point that the horn's "fate" motif lost some of its punch and the subsequent string fugue sounded harried. In the transition to the final movement however, Herreweghe took more time and his final movement was beautifully paced and weighted.

While his tempos in the Fifth Symphony erred on the fast side, Herreweghe's pacing for the Seventh Symphony, an equally dramatic and energetic work, was superb. Beethoven composed major solos for every wind instrument in this symphony and the Orchestre des CE's wind principals played brilliantly, while maintaining a homogeneity that one seldom hears.

Herreweghe conducted with accuracy and thoughtfulness throughout, but broke little new ground in his insight of either symphony.

Had the concert been performed in a smaller venue like the Victoria Concert Hall, the orchestra could have provided greater drama and more volume, but then many fewer music lovers would have been able to enjoy the performance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2017, with the headline 'Showcase of authentic instruments'. Print Edition | Subscribe