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Savall’s Beethoven sets Salzburg aflame

Savall’s Beethoven sets Salzburg aflame

Mark Pullinger, August 8th 2023

Catalan conductor Jordi Savall has a genteel stage presence. Aged 82, he moves with grace, entering the Stiftung Mozarteum’s Großer Saal with a shy nod to the audience before kissing the hand of the leader of Le Concert des Nations, Lina Tur Bonet. Savall’s conducting is unassuming, tracing elegant baton movements, never drawing attention to himself. Yet the result was the fieriest period instrument Beethoven I’ve heard since Teodor Currentzis brought musicAeterna to the Proms in 2018. By coincidence, Currentzis was also playing in town tonight… such are the invidious choices that need to be made at the Salzburg Festival.

When was the last time you heard the Eroica played in the first half of a concert? A revolutionary masterpiece, it is the work that liberated the symphony from the 18th century. An epic struggle and a tragic funeral march are overcome in a buoyant finale, its triumphant coda a certainty for a concert closing ovation. According to our database, the Eroica has only appeared first on the programme in two concerts over the past two seasons… and one of those was by tonight’s protagonists.

Despite Savall’s economy of gesture, gunshot timpani (Riccardo Balbinutti) called everyone to attention for an energetic, boisterous performance. The string section – just 32 of them – bit with a sinewy, chewy tone, Tur Bonet almost out of her seat, sometimes turning to spur on her violins. It’s a fairly young band – flautist Marc Hantaï’s grey mop of hair the exception among the woodwind section, which was seated in a single row in front of the brass and timps.

There was a plangent wail to Paolo Grazzi’s oboe in the Marcia funebre, a movement that rose to savage anger before the bustle of the Scherzo and a Trio section where the three horns galumphed raucously. The Prometheus variations in the finale were buoyant – some incredible flute articulation – and the romp to the finish line was exuberant. This was not perfect playing – not every horn note hit the centre and there were a few scruffy ensemble moments – but it was Beethoven played with fire and spirit, deserving of a standing ovation… but we’d only reached the interval.

How do you possibly top the Eroica? With the Fifth Symphony, of course, its Fate motif punched out with sharp hammer blows. There were softer moments amid the bristling first movement, particularly the lyrical shaping of the brief oboe soliloquy, but this was edgy, exciting stuff. The horns rasped in the Scherzo, while the athletic scrabbling of the four double basses drew broad smiles and jiggles from the back desk of second violins directly in front of them.

Savall, never seeming to break sweat, introduced a moment of theatre into the finale, trumpets and trombones standing for their triumphant proclamations. This movement also saw the belated arrival of those extreme members of the woodwind family – a howitzer of a contrabassoon, parping its gruff bassline, and the piercing piccolo, played by the tallest member of the section. The playing was exhilarating, the sense of exultation was infectious. You live for concerts like this.