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Beethoven's extra bits

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra | 14:33 UK time, Friday, 19 January 2007

Some very nice things happened this our concert, that is. There was lots of smiling, some spontaneous applause, even whooping, and all this in the middle of a Beethoven piano concerto – would you believe? Things started well. Conductor Nicholas McGegan introduced the concert, mentioned some mistakes in the programme notes, what was good about working with Sally Beamish etc, that sort of stuff. It's a great feeling when the conductor has a gift for drawing in the audience, putting everyone at their ease, giving out some interesting snippets of information, good vibes all round. And so we were all smiling for the start of the modern piece. Which helps. Even better, Betty McKellar read her poem, the one that inspired Sally Beamish to write the music we were about to play. Beautiful and haunting. Sometimes I think that we've scared you off before we start playing 'the modern piece'. Beamish's Sangsters is attractive, clearly written, easily followed, has ear-catching melodies and cleanly drawn lines, like the poem.

Then the fun started. McGegan had warned us that Robert Levin, our soloist in Beethoven's second piano concerto, has revived the art of improvising cadenzas. That's the bit where the band stops and the soloist takes off alone. Including our rehearsals, Levin treated us to three completely different cadenzas. The last one, at the concert, was by far the most dramatic. It surged forward in flurries of dense harmonies and volcanic rumblings down in the lowest registers – he had mentioned that he needs an audience to wind him up. This led to the explosion of applause and whoops at the end of the first movement. Interesting, though. When McGegan warned us about the improvisation I groaned. Beethoven himself wrote out a couple of cadenzas for this concerto, and the second, which is the more often played, is the most extraordinary thing. It's wildly inventive, very long, completely out of style with the concerto itself, and listening to it is usually about the most fun that I get when playing in any of the piano concertos. I wasn't in the mood to listen to some self indulgent guy trying to outdo Beethoven. But at that point I hadn't heard Levin, he's new to us. He started off by playing along with us the whole time – grief! – Beethoven didn't write any bits for him to play during our sections, what's he up to? He even stuck in the odd bit of counter-melody, not just the usual harmonic padding that you might expect. All quite authentic, I am sure, but 'not done'. And worse, shock horror, in the fun packed last movement he started adding twiddly bits to the actual holy text of the piano part itself, jazzy stuff and all that. The whole thing delivered with consummate virtuosity, constant 'rubati' (that's small bendy bits in the rhythm) and a glorious sense of freedom. When I think of the thousands of hours that we have spent, brows deeply furrowed, straining for that perfection of authentic detail........Levin seemed to sweep all that away, and I absolutely know that Ludwig van B would have been thrilled.

There's an irony here. Beethoven didn't like this piece. He endlessly tinkered with it. What'd he have thought to see Levin totally wowing an audience with his wretched piece? It's called the second concerto, but it's the first one he completed, and maybe he just found it too immature to live with.....I wish lots of other composers could be that immature. Some interesting questions come out of this. There are a handful of characteristic showy elements and traditional gestures that any cadenza is expected to contain. Though this was the first time Levin had done this concerto, would it still be real improvisation when he gets to his hundredth performance of it? I wonder if Beethoven wrote his perversely complicated cadenza just to stop pianists dishing out the usual clichés? Would you want to listen over and over to this sort of performance, as a CD? How much have we lost touch with the 'live event' element? But you'll know that this is the point where I jump on my hobby horse, so I'll shut up.

One of those interesting snippets: did you know, if you weren't at the concert, that the 'warlike' theme, a sort of velvet jacketed 'Scots wha hae', at the end of Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony is a re-cycled Ave Maria that he wrote ten years earlier in Italy?
A lot of you had to dash off for your Horlicks after the symphony, but you should have lingered. Robert Irvine and Sian Bell played some 'cello music by Beamish – what a treat. There are very few concert halls in the world that lend themselves so well to this type of 'coda'. All of our concerts have been followed by some such fifteen minute event – stay if you can.

Anthony Sayer

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