Review: NACO charms with the Pastoral but impresses with Beethoven’s Fourth

The NAC Orchestra picked up a JUNO nomination for the album The Bounds of Our Dreams (Analekta) containing works by Maurice Ravel, Canadian Walter Boudreau and Rimsky Korsakov.

Alexander Shelley and NACO pressed on with their Beethoven Symphony cycle on Wednesday night, ticking the Fourth and Sixth off their list.

There’s an old wives’ tale in classical music that Beethoven’s even-numbered symphonies are somehow “not as good” as his odd-numbered ones. Certainly by Beethoven’s middle period this statement becomes pure rubbish. Even if you measure “greatness” in terms of popularity alone, the enduring ubiquitousness of the Sixth on concert programs and recordings dispels that tired myth.

Settling more comfortably into the mohair-throw warmth of their spiffy new shell, Shelley and the orchestra delivered a Pastoral that thrummed with life. No placid, static, Constable countryside this; Shelley’s vision of a teeming, regenerative natural world translated into brisk tempi choices, Dynamic, eager phrasing, and driving, forward momentum through all five movements. In the Andante, the molto mosso was taken particularly to heart, the oscillating motif in the strings suggesting all the impatient, kinetic energy of rapidly flowing water.

For all the familiar charms of the Pastoral, the most revelatory playing of the evening took place in the Fourth. The acoustic improvements in Southam Hall continue to delight and impress. Small details of counterpoint and ornamentation — an Alberti bass bassoon line here, a dainty grace note in the first violins there — are constantly brought into brilliant focus.

In the tiptoeing opening, Shelley created a delightful feeling of suspense and that resolved into a majestic, rhythmically firm Allegro. The Adagio, with its gently pulsing “heartbeat” motif, was brimming with tender, rapturous affection.

A playfully boisterous third movement set the energy level high for the whirring, electric, breathless finale, with its bold contrasts of colour and shading. Principal clarinet Kimball Sykes’ exquisite, elegant solos in the second and fourth movements secured the Fourth Symphony’s spot as my favourite of the festival so far.

NACO will play symphonies No. 7 and 8 Thursday night (tonight). The festival will end Saturday night with a performance of the Ninth Symphony.

Share Post
Written by

Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.