06 September 2015

The Cherubini Conundrum

Why is it that the composer whom Beethoven regarded as the greatest of his day, eclipsing even Mozart, has fallen into almost total oblivion?  Could it be that Beethoven got it wrong and that Luigi Carlo Zanobi Salvadore Maria Cherubini was not, in fact, overly talented on the composing front?  Sadly, I fear this is the case and if we can admire Beethoven for his music, his ability to recognise genius in others seems to have been sadly lacking.

Cherubini was a great survivor whose life spanned some of the more turbulent periods in 18th and 19th century European politics, and whose personal associations would have brought other men a catalogue of enemies too numerous to list.  Imagine a modern-day figure, possibly on the Executive Committee of FIFA, highly-respected by the world’s media, a close friend of Malaysia’s Najib as well as a bosom buddy of Dr M and a staunch defender of Anwar Ibrahim, who, in this week’s election stands against the PAP yet earns the party’s unwavering respect, is photographed alongside both Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton on their respective campaign trails, is publicly admired by David Cameron and Angela Merkel, seen dancing on Saddam Hussein’s grave and is a staunch defender of the policies of Bashar al-Assad, and you have someone with the survival instincts of Cherubini.  Little wonder, then, that Beethoven might have admired the man; but his music seems, to my ears at least, lacking in true distinction.

What little I know of Cherubini’s output – restricted largely to the Requiem, a Symphony in D minor, the second Horn Sonata (I’ve never come across the first – but, there again, I’ve never looked for it) and the opera Médée – is instantly forgettable, and probably his most frequently performed concert work, the Anacréon Overture is as unforgettable as the rest of them, its interest (for concert promoters) being the obvious influence – especially in the excruciatingly long-drawn-out ending – it had on Beethoven himself.

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra could not have played it better than they did on Saturday evening; the strings were beautifully crisp and precise, Lan Shui’s dynamic moulding excellently proportioned, and the overall balance and control immaculately polished.  It was just that, once it was over, I found I had forgotten it had ever been played.

Not so the two Beethoven works which dominated the programme; the 1st  and 4th Piano Concertos, a continuation of the Orchestra’s survey of the five Viennese concertos with Stephen Hough which is taking place over the course of this week.  The 1st began well enough, but the clarity of articulation across the orchestra and the general assertiveness of tone which had so marked the previous performances and which seemed to be a legacy of the Orchestra’s immersion in the music of Bach and the interpretative embraces of Suzuki, wore off well before the second movement began.  An incredibly focused clarinet solo in the slow movement was worthy of note, but hints of orchestral (and pianistic) cloudiness which emerged here, became rather pronounced in the Finale which, never fully caught the spring-like jauntiness this music needs; too often sounding like the over-enthusiastic running of an amateur sports event.

Clearly, though, for others in the audience this was not just a brilliant performance but one of such outstanding wonderfulness that they decided to stand up at the end and call out incoherently.  Not a spontaneous reaction, I hasten to add, but one which evolved after a few minutes during which the parties responsible strained their necks around the auditorium to see whether there were others of like mind or whether they could make their mark by being the first.  Luckily this unspontaneous show of audience bravado proved to be quite uncontagious.

Audience spontaneity broke out after the first movement of the 4th Concerto however, as well it should, for this was a scintillating performance.  Such delicious poise from Hough with the restrained piano opening chords, and how delightfully Lan Shui held the SSO back just long enough to make the point of the opening moment of true musical revolution.  No wonder that, as the movement reached its triumphant conclusion, spontaneous applause began to break out around the hall.  But suddenly, and with heart-stopping abruptness, it ceased; the perpetrators suddenly aware that they were committing what too many stuck up, elitist classical music aficionados regard as a fearful solecism.  The man in front of me, whose hands were at the very point of contact before he realised it was a sin, shrunk miserably into his seat, relieved at having been spared the ire of the self-appointed silence merchants.  Yet, in truth, it is those of us who declined to applaud who showed real ignorance.  For no Beethoven Concerto first movement would ever have been received in silence, nor would the composer have wished it.  Spontaneous appreciation of great music and a fine performance were regarded, in Beethoven’s day, as quite right and proper; and it is to my eternal shame that I do not have the courage to step out of my hide-bound musical roots and show genuine approval when it’s due.

As it was, the rest of the Concerto went from strength to strength, the profoundly lovely slow movement full of the tragedy and sorrow Beethoven apparently saw in the desolation of Niobe.  An intriguing pre-concert talk drew attention to the innovations which had taken place in piano design between the 1st and 4th concertos, and it was intriguing to see how Beethoven employed all these new devices in this single movement, and how well Stephen Hough addressed all of the particular issues raised in the talk.  The throw-away Finale was as bright and breezy as the ending of the First had not been, yet, perhaps shocked by the near-solecisms of the first movement putative applauders, the audience was slow to react, and even the carefully choreographed standers seemed a little slow to get to their feet.  The performance was not worth a standing ovation (nor did it get one), but was well worth the prolonged applause and the gift of a superbly-delivered Chopin Nocturne as an encore. 

And, for the record, Chopin also admired Cherubini, regarding him as one of the major figures in Parisian musical circles.  Funny how, 12 hours after the event, I can remember every note of the Chopin, but can’t even recall a moment from the Cherubini.

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