I’m a Beethoven tragic and when I was offered the chance to review The Beethoven Project in advance of the screening on 25 June 2016 there was nothing to think about. The only concern for me was how to maintain objectivity and not simply write a rave review. Well, this is going to be a rave review, and not because I have lost objectivity, but because the The Beethoven Project deserves it.
The Beethoven Project is a filmed screening of a live presentation of the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle performing Beethoven’s sunny and cheerful Symphony No.4 and his ecstatic Symphony No.7. The two symphonies are preceded by a screening of the documentary Living with Beethoven, which features interviews with Rattle and members of the Philharmonic. They give their take on how to perform the cycle of the nine Beethoven symphonies and what the music means to them, not only as professional musicians but also as living breathing human beings.
This is a fascinating presentation, I was rapt for two hours and twenty minutes and I will be blown away when I venture to the Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas to see it in full HD glory on the big silver screen. Yes, one viewing is not enough.
Like many other Beethoven tragics, I have heard many performances of the symphonies and I confess to owning many recordings of them on both CD and vinyl by various orchestras and conductors. As I listened and watched my way through the documentary I anticipated I would greatly enjoy Rattle’s interpretation of the 4th and 7th – which I did – and I expected to hear approaches that were unexpected and perhaps not to my liking, but I resolved this review would not be a critique of the actual performances. Rather I would concentrate on the actual ‘event’.
So, what does the ‘event’ – the film presentation – offer a Beethoven tragic? It offers a rare opportunity to get close to one of the greatest conductors in the world and to see him at work rehearsing his orchestra. We see him talking to the musicians about the genius behind the music, about Beethoven’s life, and discussing possible motivations behind the music – sometimes musical phrase by phrase. The dialogue between musician and conductor goes beyond the musical notes and how they should/might be played. It is something much deeper than that, more spiritual.
Rattle explains that when he performs the full cycle with the orchestra over several weeks – as part of a Beethoven festival – he discovers new subtleties and nuances that are to be drawn out and perfected. It’s as if the symphonies have just been written and are about to be played for the first time. I was intrigued when Rattle remarked that even after having invested time and energy into perfecting a particular interpretation, he is just as likely to do it differently ‘on the night’ and so the orchestra should keep its collective eyes and ears wide open!
Musical performance is organic: it lives and has its being ‘in the moment’. No two performances are ever the same. Rattle remarks that it is all about “musical opinion”, and his opinion is different now to what it was twenty years ago and will certainly be different in twenty years’ time. He also explains why he sometimes chooses to place the various sections of the orchestra differently to what is usually expected. It certainly isn’t whim – there are clear and compelling musical reasons!
A fascinating feature of the documentary is to see and hear the orchestra performing a section from a symphony and this seguing seamlessly into a rehearsal of the same section but this time by an individual member of the orchestra. Instantly your focus is on one person, one instrument and you want to hear what that person is thinking. The documentary also gives a tantalising glimpse into the intricacies of making a studio recording and of filming a performance for telecast. Fascinating stuff.
And so to the performance of the two symphonies. As I stated earlier, I shan’t critique what is heard – except to say it was just top notch – but rather comment on what is seen. We see the orchestra from the front, the back and every angle in between. We are up close and (almost) personal with the musicians. You see the beads of sweat forming on their brows, and the pulsating veins in their hands and necks. You see their smiles and pouts. You catch the precise moment when they hold their breath in preparation to explode into a musical phrase when Sir Simon says so.
You notice that Rattle conducts without a score – he knows it so well that he has memorised the lot – and that he rarely beats time. Rather, his role is to remind the orchestra of their motivation for playing in a particular way. Rattle would have made a wonderful silent movie star – he says so much with his face and eyes, with the set of his head and the way he controls the tension in his hands and individual fingers. And it has clearly infected the members of the orchestra. We sometimes see a player turn around to watch and listen intently to another as if to hitch a ride on their colleague’s wave of musical passion. This event is an emotional roller coaster and it is sublime.
At the end of the performance the audience erupts into effusive applause, and Rattle publicly acknowledges every section leader. His thanks were patently genuine, as was the audience’s appreciation.
I do have the Beethoven cycle on CD performed by the Berlin Philharmonic several times over with various conductors, but none with Sir Simon Rattle on the conductor’s podium. Having now seen The Beethoven Project, I plan do something about that.
Even if you are not a Beethoven tragic, do yourself a favour and see this wonderful screen presentation at the Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas. Remember, there is only one screening!
Reviewed by Kym Clayton
Rating out of 10: 9.5
The Beethoven Project screens on Saturday 25 June 2016, for one screening only, exclusively at the Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas.