After several weeks of careful and satisfying preparation, The Hartford Chorale and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra just presented two performances of Beethoven’s monumental, yet deeply personal, Ninth Symphony, the "Choral." Here’s the review from The Hartford Courant:
A Memorable Beethoven's Ninth: Cumming Draws Fiery Performance From Hartford Symphony
As Edward Cumming conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony from memory, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, in the opening program of the 2008-2009 Masterworks Series in Mortensen Hall, responded with a fiery performance.
Familiar as this work is, conducting it from memory is no small feat, given that there are some 2,600 measures of detailed textures and cues. But it put Cumming in direct and unbroken contact with the orchestra, and the level of intensity was magnified.
Cumming began the first movement by backing his feet onto the extreme left-hand corner of the podium. He was facing the celli section diagonally, looking like an Olympic gymnast getting ready for a tricky combination in a floor routine. He readied his arms and stood motionless for what seemed a good 20 seconds.
Then, from the opening downbeat through the two sweeping scales that precede the final cadence, the entire movement came across as continuous and uninterrupted compositional thought. The orchestra produced a vivid and massive sound.
The second movement developed the intensity of the first, with Cumming giving agile cues for entrances of the rhythmic motive that drives this scherzo. He took the trio at a tempo disputed by some Beethoven scholars, one that is slower than typically heard. The tempo allowed space within the driving intensity of the music and seemed an effective idea in the larger context of the performance as a whole.
“O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! (Oh friends, not these tones!)” With these words, sung by baritone Anton Belov, the symphonic world of instruments became vocal. This invocation consists of Beethoven's own words, and it precedes the text by Schiller. Belov was later joined by soprano Elona Ceno, mezzo-soprano Ela Zingerevich and tenor Tadeusz Szlenkier, who made an impression with spirited singing during his solo in the “Turkish-March” episode.
But it was The Hartford Chorale, prepared by the incomparable Richard Coffey, who stole the show. They stood en masse at the return of what Wagner called the “schreckensfanfare” (horror fanfare), and it then became clear that they intended an intensification of their own — they sang the lengthy German text from memory. The sense of collective focused energy was overpowering, unbroken from the choir to us. How can one hear this kind of direct communication and not be moved? The challenges of this demanding movement were met. The passage during which the familiar “Joy” theme combines with the more austere “Seid umschlungen, millionen! (Be embraced, you millions!)” had a clarity, both in diction and direction, that became a celebration.The closing gesture of the symphony was met with an instantaneous standing ovation. The audience stood in a single gesture, one that balanced the moment when the chorale stood just prior to its entrance. The ovation lasted 10 minutes, solid and unbroken through three complete calls.
This was a monumental event.
Afterward, it was almost difficult to place the performance of Beethoven's First Symphony, an engaging performance that opened the concert, as having taken place on the same evening.
Cumming also conducted the First Symphony from memory and did not use a podium. He was at eye level with the players and created the sense of chamber music with an ensemble that was greatly reduced in comparison with the orchestra used for the Ninth Symphony. The wind writing came across as being particularly colorful in this performance. Chuckles were peppered throughout the hall as Cumming wound the orchestra note by note, his smile growing bigger with each mischievous gesture.
“Lucky you!” said Cumming from the stage as he concluded his pre-concert talk earlier in the evening. “A whole year of Beethoven. It doesn't get any better than that!”
Indeed, it doesn't.
"A Memorable Beethoven's Ninth: Cumming Draws Fiery Performance From Hartford Symphony." By Jeffrey Johnson. The Hartford Courant, October 26, 2008
Copyright © 2008, The Hartford Courant