BEETHOVENFEST BONN August 31 - September 2 by Chris Morley

We'll try to ignore the dreadful acoustics, sightlines and cavernous foyer-space of the World Conference Centre which is the home of Bonn's annual Beethovenfest while the creaky Beethovenhalle is being revamped, and concentrate instead on the imaginative programming of the Festival's artistic director, Nike Wagner.The theme this year was "Fate", a concept ineluctably connected with Beethoven, and particularly with the Fifth Symphony's 'Fate knocking on the door'. That work provided an obvious, spirited finale to the opening concert of this month-long festival, given by a somewhat rough-edged Orchestra Philharmonique de Radio France under Mikko Franck.We had begun with another thread commemorating the centenary of the "war to end all wars", Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin written in memory of friends fallen during World War I. The orchestra was too large for this intimate scoring of what was originally a work for piano, and tempi were impatient, paradoxically rendering this performance ultimately dull.Bertrand Chamayou was the articulate soloist in Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto no.5, a piece indebted to Chopin, Liszt, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, and even with resonances of Ketelbey's In a Persian Market. His encore, Ravel's Pavane pour une Infante Defunte, provided the best music-making of the evening, even despite the premature applause from some musically brain-dead member of the audience.Mikhail Pletnev brought his Russian National Orchestra with a brilliantly-constructed menu centring upon the posthumous Violin Concerto of Schumann, whose final years were spent incarcerated in a Bonn asylum. Renaud Capucon was the soloist, pure-toned and flexible in a reading which ultimately disappointed in a laboured finale which lost zeal and elan. His encore was breathtaking, a brave single line seamlessly spinning an aria from Gluck's Orfeo.Framing this was a triumph of programming, Rossini's William Tell Overture and then Shostakovich's Symphony no.15, which famously quotes from that work as well as referring to other defunct heroes. Pletnev gave us an account full of irony and detachment, ending in the numbness of the percussion-ticking finale.My weekend ended with a happy, locally-drawn concert from the period-instrument Orchester Rheinton (what spectacular narrow-bore trombones) and the huge forces of the Bonner Kammerchor and the Chorus Musicus Koln, Christoph Spering conducting.Ferdinand Ries, student and colleague of Beethoven,was represented by his massive oratorio Der Sieg des Glaubens, with the splendid chorus also distinguishing itself in Mendelssohn's setting of Psalm 114, Da Israel aus Agypten zog.Spering directed a refreshing account of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, string cut-offs letting the wind colours through, and with a wonderful spring to the rhythms which underlie each movement.We are moving towards the conclusion of Wagner's directorship of the Bonn Beethovenfest, which she will leave after the two festivals marking 2020's 250th anniversary of the composer's birth. Whoever succeeds her will have a huge responsibility to maintain the vibrancy of her legacy.Christopher Morley

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