Beethoven, The 1808 Concert: A masterful journey to the past | Review

Photo credit: Kirsten McTernan

By Ana Beatriz Ferreira

★ ★ ★ ★

On the evening of the 22nd December 1808, at the Theater an der Wien, Beethoven held a performance of absolutely remarkable proportions, displaying an orchestra, a chorus, vocal soloists and the composer himself as the pianist. The audience, reportedly freezing cold on that historic night, heard the premiere of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the ‘Choral Fantasy’. This was a behemoth undertaking, a four-hour-long performance of music written exclusively by the German genius. As a classical musician myself, I felt deeply excited to attend a recreation of this momentous benefit concert at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, a very comfortable and nicely heated venue which, luckily, made history not quite repeat itself.

The event started with a pre-concert talk entitled: ‘Beethoven, Wine and the musical ideas behind the 1808 concert’. Despite having known Beethoven’s music since infancy, little did I know that he liked to compose while walking through the vineyards surrounding Vienna. I was also not aware that the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fifth Symphony and the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata all have embedded in them the song of the yellowhammer, a bird Beethoven often encountered on his daily walks.

After these and many more enlightening details about the composer, the concert began. The Sixth Symphony opened the first half, beautifully performed by the Welsh National Opera Orchestra. The conductor, Carlo Rizzi, splendidly illustrated the scenes of the ‘Pastoral’, his operatic background fitting the programmatic nature of this symphony extremely well. The soprano Alwyn Mellor, in the concert aria ‘Ah! perfido’, displayed a full range of powerful emotions, from passionate anger to suffering tenderness. Stephen Osborne’s performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto was technically masterful and particularly impressed me with the boldness of its pianissimos.

In the second half, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales took the stage, conducted by Jaime Martín, and performed a mighty version of the Fifth Symphony. Martín had a fantastic energy that conveyed Beethoven’s spirit to the utmost. The second pianist, Llŷr Williams, demonstrated great depth and sensitivity in his interpretation of both the Fantasia in G minor for solo piano and the apotheotic ‘Choral Fantasy’, the last piece in the programme. The BBC National Chorus of Wales was phenomenal in both excerpts of the Mass in C minor and, together with Williams and four wonderful solo singers, brought the evening to a triumphant end.