Definitive Beethoven by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (Barbican, last Saturday) was definitive – one of those rare gigs which leave you feeling “it just doesn’t get any better than this”.

The band, 70-odd players led by octogenarian maestro Bernard Haitink, was richly melodic, feverishly paced. They did justice to Beethoven’s great piece. The strings were manic, the horns deeply moving. You just didn’t want the teasing final movement to end – just one more tease, please…

In a recent critics’ poll for Gramophone magazine, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra topped the list – “Best orchestra in the world” – out-ranking the Berlin Phil, the Vienna Phil and the Chicago SO, among others. At the Barbican, you could see why: power, pace, subtlety. They were all into the music, performing as one.

But the first half of the concert had been a drag. Mozart’s Symphony 35 (“Haffner”) was missable, unengaging. Debussy’s La Mer was mediocre, meandering. A dispiriting experience all round.

At the interval, tempted to make a quick exit to miss the second half, I mused on my general indifference to orchestral music – my classical tastes veer strongly towards vocal, notably opera. Orchestral concerts I’ve attended have been, too often, Dullsville-on-Stilts: it’s easy to see why classical audiences can be mistaken for a WW2 vets convention.

Saturday’s Beethoven performance challenged these silly prejudices. Orchestral music this good is as life enhancing as any other genre. Like any gig for grown-ups, it just depends on the set list. And the band.

Gerry Smith

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