Northern Soul’s David Gann sees Beethoven’s Egmont performed by the BBC Philharmonic at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall and discovers a concert of two, distinct halves.

Beethoven’s rarely performed Egmont, his incidental music written in 1810 for a production of the 1789 drama by Goethe, describes a story of political oppression (based on a true story) of a Flemish general (Count of Egmont) who stands against the attacking Spanish Duke of Alba until death. And there’s a fictionalised romantic twist as the love of a young girl (Clara) inspires him. Following her suicide, Egmont has a vision of her ‘spirit of freedom’ and this endows him with the courage needed to face his destiny. A trumpet call heralds the liberation of the Netherlands.

The focus is on death and liberation, both of which are rather sentimentalised under the German aesthetic. After the thrilling and familiar overture, communicated in nine short ‘movements’ – more fragments really, two of which are sung – there’s a series of short narrative links and then a melodrama.

The overture (written last) is wonderful. This is classicism on the move – a true ‘tone poem’ making way for the Romantic period, finishing with the joyous and quintessential Beethoven as he musically proclaims freedom.

Juanjo MenaThe incidental music, however, is not entirely fulfilling. Each piece is not fully developed; the second in particular was disappointingly short, though beautiful. Nor is there enough dramatic detail to fully engage with character and catharsis.

But the melodrama (not the 19th century overblown theatre genre) is fascinating as it fulfils the true meaning of this word – music carefully fashioned to fit with spoken words, sometimes accompanying, sometimes commenting.

It is in the dramatic final moments as the orchestra vivify Egmont’s ‘seeing’ of his beloved Clara as he faces death, and the ultimate defiance as he shouts his victory over a sustained (off-stage) drum roll, where we catch the emotion and the spirit of the piece. Now we have the short Victory symphony, and Beethoven is once again on inspired territory.

Soprano Eleanor Dennis has a lovely agile voice which is bright and clear yet with a breadth of tone which makes it dramatic. Malcolm Raeburn has a suitably sonorous and well-modulated spoken delivery. He did well (albeit with microphone) to connect with the large space of the concert hall with well-placed articulation and gave a rousing finish.

Although the first half was disappointing, the second half was sublime. Javier Perianes at the piano brought a delicacy of touch, refinement of phrasing and technical perfection to Mozart Piano Concerto No 23. The central movement (adagio) is agonisingly beautiful. He then gave us an exquisite encore by Chopin that delighted the audience.

The Haydn symphony No 44, a classic of the Sturm and Drang period (literally ‘storm and stress’) and popular in Austria, was refreshing; beautifully phrased and shaped by the wonderful conductor Juanjo Mena. Like a potter shaping his clay, he carefully crafted dynamics, generated an operatic sense of agitation when necessary and ensured that the violins negotiated the scale passages with precision and finesse. The conductor fairly danced as he brought this wonderful orchestra home in the final presto with style and verve that epitomised this second of two halves.

By David Gann

Main image: pianist Javier Perianes