Beethoven strikes again

Photo by Sherif Sonbol

On Saturday 16 June, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ahmed El Saedi performed two great works: Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade symphonic suite Op. 35 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

It is unusual to be treated to two equally splendid works in one evening; both are especially admired by the Egyptian listeners and are natural audience magnets. And 16 June being the first day of the presidential runoff elections didn’t stop many music lovers from attending. All gathered for the buildup to a promising evening that included Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67.

Taking into account that Scheherazade tumbled under many major problems – an unexpected event in the presence of El-Saedi – let us pass directly to the second half of the evening and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, an iconic work which, according to Edward Morgan Forster, the English novelist, essayist and librettist, is “the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man.”

This most sublime noise is captivating, yet at the same time it is a huge challenge for any orchestra and conductor – a responsibility towards the composition’s greatness and audiences that have listened to it dozens of times under many batons – and accordingly has clearly-defined expectations and preferences. We wait for the conductor’s personal confession, in which his vision and understanding of the work takes on a life of its own in order to walk us through the compositional marvels. The symphony is so perfect and so brilliant that every time, it allows us to find something new in its experience. When its architectonic structure is embraced by one vision and when the entire work, throughout its four distinctive movements, blends into one powerful picture, the listener eventually arrives at complete satisfaction. The strong Beethovenesque claws keep one on the edge of the seat while following an ongoing narrative. And the orchestra performs all those moments of perfect broidery: colours, rhythms, buildups, growing tensions, releases, unexpected shifts in emotion, and key…

For decades now, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 has been performed by the the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by principal and guest conductors. One of its most memorable interpretations was Daniel Barenboim’s, back in 2009. This time it was El-Saedi’s turn to look into this iconic work whose creator is known to have stated: “I must write… for what weighs on my heart, I must express… I live only in my music… With whom need I fear to measure my strength?” As such, to date, Beethoven’s scrutinizing eye seems to be on the conductor’s shoulder, waiting for yet another interpretation of the work of which the composer doesn’t try to hide his pride.

Ahmed El-Saedi is a conductor with a significant resume of orchestral achievements. He was the Cairo Symphony Orchestra’s music director and principal conductor between 1993 and 2003: years during which the orchestra reached remarkable artistic levels and its excellence was Egypt’s pride and joy in many international halls. Following the 2003 divorce, many foreign conductors took the destiny of the orchestra into their hands; some of them added important values to the orchestra; others, however, contributed to the instability of its artistic output.

Every listener recognises Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 from the first four notes – Sol Sol Sol Mi bemol – which open the first movement (Allegro con brio). This is the so-called fate motif, a term based on a bogus story that has nonetheless lived on. This is the core molecule that keeps going through endless permutations, transformations and combinations. As the conductor leads us through this gigantic structure, the baton balances the rhythmic elements and controls the pauses. The molecules and their offspring are independent elements that create a complete puzzle; and musically they form a solid, uninterrupted flow. Through a number of rough cuts, El-Saedi stresses Beethoven’s technically brilliant components. Yet, at times, the same lines resulted in a loss of the necessary, evenly lustrous scent: a fact that gave a mechanical numbness to the first movement.

A delicate energy shift is welcomed by the long bows opening the second movement (Andante con moto). Within the first note pronounced by the strings, the conductor chooses the musical texture unveiling the most beautiful melodies, leading to many soothing realisations and a series of variations. The fraction of a second when the bows hit the strings is the decisive moment, placing basic sketch lines of the energy in that movement. During this evening the strings were approached harshly and the orchestra took its time to regain the musical balance and expressive softness in the following bars. By the time the second theme appeared in clarinets and bassoons, the orchestra managed to loosen up, and the music glowed – allowing all the woodwinds to convey their respective, delicate colours.

The third movement (Allegro) consists of scherzo and trio: from a sense of anticipation to a joyful fugal style, from pianissimo linings to the dynamic crescendo, the movement is an independent sculpture which, when managed well, takes the audience through a multitude of emotions punctuated by strong surprises. There is enormous space for push and pull. Each time, the listener is about to grasp Beethoven by the sleeve; the composer, again and again, makes an escape and rises above all expectations. Coming from the previous Andante movement, the orchestra took off with a gentle sense of suspense, a level to which it could no longer return taken by the strong winds of more dynamic parts. While approaching the end of the movement, most of the necessary spaces between the contrasts started to shrink.

And it was the fourth movement (Allegro) that gave the orchestra the freedom to move into the deep waters of great Beethoven’s sound. Though well performed, again, the stronger dynamics kept stealing the energy from piano parts. Nevertheless, the triumphant greatness of that closing movement managed to take its balanced breath, needed particularly in the presto part.

Beethoven always manages to speak for himself; his musical ideas and strength will keep surfacing, going beyond conceptualisations set forward by different conductors. The history and expertise of El-Saedi help him to create artistic visions, even if lately they seem clouded by communication difficulties. One decade back, the very same symphony in the hands of El-Saedi had probably sounded more natural, instead of becoming an obligation for the orchestra. Today, the reasons for the pitfalls might vary, though the audience knows that we can expect more from the orchestra and the conductor, the power of the Beethoven’s final note leave us

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